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Mark Carney: The George Clooney of finance

The new governor of the Bank of England, the Canadian Mark Carney, has been hailed as the saviour of the British economy. But who is he – and is his record that good?

Mark Carney. Photograph: Blair Cable

The wounds are still deep. Defeated rivals to succeed Sir Mervyn King as the 120th governor of the Bank of England resent the way that the government settled on the Canadian Mark Carney –who takes office on 1 July 2013. Carney, now 48, was fast-tracked through the interview process, allowed to choose the length of his term of office (five years instead of the statutory eight), handed a handsome salary of £624,000 and a “London” housing allowance of £250,000 and, as one candidate told me, “launched on the nation as a messiah”.

“He is a good banker and competent regulator, but not a messiah,” the candidate said. Indeed, there is concern that by describing Carney as the most accomplished central banker of his generation the Chancellor, George Osborne, has raised expectations far too high. As King made clear at his final Inflation Report press conference on 15 May, there is only so much that monetary policy – low interest rates and buying UK government bonds through the quantitative easing programme – can achieve on its own.

Nevertheless, there are elements of Carney’s humble early beginnings that have a feel of the messianic about them. His birthplace of Fort Smith, in Canada’s Northwest Territories, is about as distant from the world of high finance that he now bestrides as you can get. To reach his native town, the traveller must fly from Yellowknife, the provincial capital, or drive 17 hours from Edmonton before happening upon the frontier town, which sits on a bend in the Slave River.

It’s a remarkable journey that Carney has made from Canada’s frozen wastelands to the antique splendour of the governor’s parlour in the salubrious inner court of the Bank of England. But not more so than the journeys of other messianic figures in finance, including the sage Warren Buffett, the world’s most successful investor, who still runs his empire from the cattle town of Omaha, Nebraska, in America’s Midwestern plains.

The choice of Carney as governor (the appointment was in fact made by the Queen on the recommendation of the Prime Minister) has much to do with the Chancellor’s tendency to equate style and the ability to talk a good game with judgement and substance. On the morning of Carney’s appointment, Osborne personally rang leading City journalists to sell the appointment of the first foreigner to be picked to lead the Bank of England since its foundation in 1694. He stressed Carney’s British credentials. By an accident of history, the governor of the Bank of Canada is also appointed in the name of the Queen, Osborne pointed out. Carney is married to a Brit, gained his Master’s and PhD at Oxford, and is almost an honorary citizen.

It is a susceptibility to hero worship that led Osborne to become the first western finance minister to back the appointment of the elegant former French finance minister Christine Lagarde as managing director of the International Monetary Fund in 2011. The outcome of this has been distinctly mixed, as recent self-flagellation over the handling of the Greek bailout, the Cyprus banking fiasco and overoptimistic interpretations of austerity have demonstrated.

Similarly, Carney’s relative youth, amid the older eminences of the financial world, his matinee idol looks (he has been referred to as the bankers’ George Clooney) and his seemingly impeccable CV drew him to Osborne’s attention. Of medium height and athletic build, Carney speaks rapidly, reeling off facts and acronyms as if answering questions against the clock for a TV quiz show. Sometimes the answers come so fast that they are difficult to catch and become a blur. What is clear, however, is that he is a zealot for cleaning up the mess in the financial markets following the Great Recession.

Carney’s sporting passion is ice hockey; you could say that at times he speaks at the same speed as the puck skids across the ice at games with his home team, the Edmonton Oilers. His all-time sports hero is his fellow Canadian Bobby Orr of the Boston Bruins.

He is a “cleanskin” as far as the British public and parliament are concerned. He carries no taint from the 2007-2008 meltdown in Britain or the LIBOR and money-laundering scandals that have so undermined the reputation of British banking. However, lurking in his background are his 13 bonus-filled years as an insider at Goldman Sachs – which critics regard as the shrewdest but most toxic brand in global finance.

Osborne’s admiration for Carney is based on his near-six-year stint as the governor of the Bank of Canada. Carney joined the bank in November 2007 as the United States subprime mortgage crisis began to rock global banking. He was among the first central bankers to recognise the fragility of the financial system. He followed the classic prescription of the renowned scholar of the “Great Crash” Charles Kindleberger and immediately moved to cut Canadian interest rates to the bone. He was way ahead of the pack; the European Central Bank, showing the anti-inflationary zeal of its Frankfurt masters, was still raising rates. And at the Bank of England Mervyn King held off on cutting rates to record low levels until March 2009. This was despite the determination of one of his colleagues on the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), Professor David Blanchflower, to force his hand.

Indeed, so impressed were finance ministers and his central banking colleagues by Carney’s skills in riding out the crisis from his Ottawa eyrie, that in November 2011 he was put in charge of building a safer architecture for global banking as the chairman of the Financial Stability Board, an institution born of Gordon Brown’s reforming zeal in the spring of 2009.

Clearly, Carney believes he can do what is necessary at the Bank of England. He exudes an inner confidence that some veteran observers argue verges on smugness. Yet there is evidence that he is fragile when it comes to taking criticism. There were flashes of this when he appeared before the financial media at the National Press Club in Washington in April this year, on the fringes of the spring sessions of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Interviewed sympathetically by his fellow native Canadian Chrystia Freeland of Reuters, Carney looked on top of his game and praised the US Federal Reserve and its chairman, Ben Bernanke, for providing forward guidance on interest rates. “I think the Fed’s . . . guidance helps a lot on this,” he said. But when the Canadian governor was confronted by a Sky News journalist who quoted an argument that questioned the value of guidance and then revealed that the words were Mervyn King’s, Carney snapped back, using the word “sneaky”.

The new governor’s previous experience of life in Britain, at Oxford and working for Goldman Sachs, was suddenly far from public view. He may prove to be a little unprepared for the intense scrutiny of the UK’s probing and competitive financial media.

When recently a reporter suggested that the public criticism by Carney of European regulators’ behaviour during the financial crisis might have been a thinly veiled criticism of King, an astringent email arrived from the Bank of Canada demanding a correction. If such requests for “corrections” on interpretations of economic data and governor’s speeches were to become commonplace, Carney could quickly find himself distracted from his policy agenda.

That agenda is immensely complicated, and the job that Carney is being asked to do is vastly different from the one that King was tasked to undertake when Gordon Brown drafted him in as the successor to Eddie George a decade ago. The job, as King saw it at the time, was to turn the Bank of England into an anti-inflation monetary institution that ranked in economic skills and expertise on a par with the pre-eurozone Bundesbank.

Carney’s job is to go further. His remit, as outlined by Osborne in the March 2013 Budget, is to balance the inflation-fighting agenda with maintaining growth and employment, as is the case in the United States. However, he also inherits a vast new apparatus designed to enforce financial stability. At its heart is the new Financial Policy Committee – to be chaired by Carney – whose job it will be to try to make sure that the catastrophe of 2007-2009, the worst financial crisis in a century, does not happen again. In this role he will be working closely with Paul Tucker, the deputy governor and Bank of England lifer who was the hot in-house favourite to succeed King. Supervision of significant financial institutions, the banks and insurers has also been repatriated to the Bank under the Prudential Regulatory Authority (PRA), run by a respected new deputy governor, Andrew Bailey.

When George Osborne turned to Carney in November 2012, after a series of private interviews, his objective was to find a governor who would place growth at the top of his agenda. Carney’s past achievements in this area are impressive, as the Canadian governor trumpeted in a recent speech: “As painful as our recession was, Canada suffered less. By the start of 2011, all of our out put and all of the jobs lost in the recession had been recovered. A further 480,000 jobs have been created since, with the vast majority of them full-time and in the private sector.”

The expectation had been that Carney would do much the same as King, but more. King was always reluctant to use the Bank of England’s balance sheet directly to support credit through such schemes as Funding for Lending, which aims to funnel tens of billions in cheaper lending to homebuyers and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). He did so only after obtaining guarantees from the Treasury.

It is hoped that Carney will be more adventurous. He is expected to lay down ideas for fulfilling the new growth mandate when he presents the Inflation Report – the Bank’s main policy platform – at a press conference in early August. The urgency of this task has eased somewhat in recent months. Fears of a “double dip” or “triple dip” in growth have been banished as the economy unexpectedly pulls out of the doldrums.

All the latest indicators point to expansion in three main areas: construction, services (which make up more than 70 per cent of national output) and manufacturing. Exports to the non-eurozone, particularly the United States, have started to pick up. Arguably the biggest decision that Carney and the interestrate-setting MPC will have to make is when to take the economy off the crack cocaine of super-low interest rates and quantitative easing – government bond buying that adds to the money supply. The former MPC member Andrew Sentance is among those calling for the UK and other western nations to “prepare for a rise in interest rates”.

Carney does not have a free hand anyway, as he acknowledged in Washington when he noted that he would have only one vote on the nine-member MPC. Before he stood down, King was outvoted four months in a row in his wish to see quantitative easing stepped up.

Regulatory issues are piling up, too. The Chancellor has charged the Financial Policy Committee with deciding when his Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme looks overheated and so when it might need to be withdrawn. It could be a particularly sensitive issue for Carney who, it is argued, has left behind a potential construction and housing shock in Canada. Derek Holt, the vice-president of the economics research division of the Canadian lender Scotiabank, says of Carney: “I believe that, after having eased and elevated housing activity to unsupportable heights, the rules were then tightened too much and too quickly at the precise all-time peak in the housing and consumer markets . . . The consequences are only just emerging by way of a magnified hard landing.”

Moreover, the Bank of England’s supervisory arm, the PRA, is facing the first test of the new regime at the troubled Co-operative Bank. As head of the Financial Stability Board, Carney has been at the forefront of efforts to create a so-called resolution regime that will make it possible to save the best parts of the failing banks without eating into valuable taxpayers’ money.

The bad debts at the Co-op are piling up and analysts at the credit arm of Barclays estimate that the capital shortfall could be as high as £1.8bn. If the principles that Carney espouses in his role at the FSB are to be fulfilled, that will mean that the backers of the Co-op bank, the rest of the Co-op and the bondholders (who include many private investors) will be asked to form part of the bailout consortium. It will be a painful decision, given the number of MPs in the Commons sponsored by the Co-op, including the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls. It could leave behind the impression that the Co-op, a mutual, is being punished where far bigger banks, including the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds, were put on the government payroll.

Nevertheless, it can be argued that everything in Carney’s background, from his hardscrabble early life in the western wilderness of Canada to his experiences at the heart of casino capitalism at Goldman Sachs, has prepared him for his new role.

Mark Carney was born on 16 March 1965. His family lived in a modest, yellow-painted house near the high school in Fort Smith where his father, Bob, was the principal. His mother, Verlie, was a homemaker who sewed fur-lined parkas for their four children to keep them warm.

When Carney was six the family upped sticks to settle in Edmonton, where the future Bank of England governor became a fan of the Oilers. His father worked first in the civil service on Native American and northern affairs, before returning to academia as a professor of education at the University of Alberta. The younger Carney may have lived in the back and beyond, but he recalled in a Reader’s Digest Canada interview that “our house was filled with books and there were lots of discussions of the issues of the day”.

At 18, he launched himself on a trajectory that would carry him to one of the most prestigious jobs in the financial world. He won a part scholarship to Harvard and planned to major in English and mathematics, but after hearing a lecture by the Canadian-born populist economist John Kenneth Galbraith he switched to economics. Money was in short supply, and while his fellow Harvard students travelled the world Carney earned cash back in Edmonton as a landscape gardener at the local hospital.

It was the search for income that led him to his first job at Goldman Sachs, where he was posted to the London office and then Tokyo, gradually moving up the scale. He became part of the closeted and deeply private elite with tentacles that reach into almost every institution in global finance. Among other past Goldman Sachs employees are the chairman of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi; the US treasury secretary at the time of the “Great Panic” in 2008, Hank Paulson; Osborne’s right-hand man on infrastructure, Lord (Paul) Deighton, the former London Olympics overlord; and one of the members of the FPC – which he will soon lead – the Tory donor Richard Sharp. One of Carney’s rivals for the job at the Bank of England was Jim O’Neill, until recently the chairman of Goldman Sachs’s asset management division and the inventor of the term “Bric” economies to refer to Brazil, Russia, India and China.

It was while at Goldman that Carney took time out to go up to Oxford, where he earned his PhD at Nuffield College, an institution long favoured by the left. It was here that he gained entry into Britain’s landed gentry, marrying Diana Fox, a British economist who specialises in overseas development policy. They married in 1995 and have had four daughters, all of whom are understood to be moving to schools in London.

After returning to Goldman, he became a specialist in sovereign risk, advising the bank on Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Still with Goldman, he moved to Wall Street before returning to Canada and a senior position in Toronto. It was there he was spotted by the then Bank of Canada governor, David Dodge; after an apprenticeship under Dodge and a stint in the federal government he was parachuted into Canada’s plum banking job, just a year before the financial crisis peaked.

It was in the role of Canada’s top banker that Carney built his reputation. Much of the mythology surrounding his stewardship of the Canadian central bank seems accurate and he has sought to reinforce that in recent speeches. “Amongst the G7 [richest industrial nations], Canada is unique,” he has said. “For us, the global financial crisis was an external rather than an internal shock. When Canadian policymakers responded quickly and forcefully, our financial system channelled credit to where it was needed and our economy adjusted smartly.”

When he talks of policymakers responding forcefully he is essentially referring to himself and his rapid-fire reductions in interest rates. But he also gives credit to a responsible fiscal system, a resilient financial system (banks that didn’t collapse) and a monetary union that works. Eurosceptics will find some comfort in the last point, as Carney, like his two predecessors at the Bank of England Eddie George and King, appears to have little time or patience with the eurozone.

He contrasts adjustment within Canada, where the benefits of high energy prices in Alberta are shared with Quebec, with the lack of transfer mechanisms in the euro area. Spain was able to run large trade deficits with the rest of Europe partly funded by foreign purchases of Spanish property. When the money flows dried up, Spain’s domestic economy collapsed because of a lack of institutions in Europe to “offset the shock”. Fiscal transfers from richer parts of a union – in Europe’s case, Germany – are necessary to support the struggling states.

However, not all is perfect in Canada, despite the incoming governor’s supreme confidence. Data shows that construction plummeted 19 per cent in January this year as the country slammed on the brakes and existing home sales dropped 8.8 per cent. Bank of America Merrill Lynch reports that as the economies of other Anglo-Saxon nations such as the US and Britain have begun to improve, “Canadian growth has started to soften” partly because of the fall in commodity prices, a vital part of the country’s miracle. It warns, too, of domestic indebtedness, “especially around the housing market”.

As Gordon Brown and Labour discovered to their cost in their final years in office, no government or central bank has yet learned the secrets of eliminating boom and bust. Carney’s Canada may have avoided the worst of the pitfalls but it is interesting that Scotiabank, among others, gives him only a B+ for stewardship and reckons that his task is “incomplete”. Far from being a messiah, Carney might just be lucky to be leaving his native country as the reckoning begins.

In the end, it will be his five years at the heart of the City of London, behind the Bank of England’s thick stone-curtain walls designed by Sir John Soane, that will determine his fate and reputation. Managing the world’s largest foreign-exchange and banking centre, where the risks come not only from your own banking system but from the eurozone and the rest of the world, will be on a completely different scale of experience.

If Carney manages to pilot Britain through the rocks it will be a short trip to his very next job – which many people think will be running as the Liberal Party’s candidate for prime minister of Canada.

Alex Brummer is most recently the author of “Britain for Sale” (Random House Business, £8.99) and is the City editor of the Daily Mail.