Uncharted Territory

July 19, 2012

We Need Rules, not Rulers: Culture, Bankers and the Mervyn King Question

Filed under: Barclays, Business practices, Concepts, Credit crisis, Economics, LIBOR, Politics, Regulation, UK — Tim Joslin @ 4:18 pm

The aim of any self-respecting blogger is to make original points. I’m no exception, so it is time to start to wind down this thread on the Libor “scandal” (previous instalments: Saint Mervyn: King by Name, King by Nature; Bashing Barclays Badly and Battling for Mount LIBOR, the Moral High Ground), for the world has in many respects come round to my way of thinking.

Yesterday’s City a.m. egged on the politicians with the momentarily confusing headline:

MPs CALL FOR CAP ON KING’S POWER

and opening salvo:

“REGULATORS grossly overreached themselves by forcing Bob Diamond out of the top job at Barclays, top backbench MP Andrew Tyrie declared yesterday…”

And the refrain “Who will guard the guards?” echoes through the land (and I noticed has even seeped, with the rapid mutation typical of memes, into the consciousness of the brigade of the commentariat more concerned with the easy target of the G4S Olympic security fiasco).

One of our heroes, already mentioned in despatches from the front-line, Hugo Dixon, has another piece on his Reuters blog, discussing how the Governor might be reined in:

“Holding the next governor accountable will be as important as choosing one. The Bank of England was rightly given considerable independence in 1997 to prevent politicians meddling in monetary policy in order to advance their electoral interests. But the institution and its leader have slipped up on enough occasions that leaving them entirely to their own devices isn’t a good option either.

For example, King didn’t sound the alarm loudly enough during the credit bubble and was slow to act when there was a run on Northern Rock, the mortgage bank, in 2007. He then long resisted any investigations into the Bank of England’s own failings in managing the crisis. Now its hands-off approach to the Libor scandal is being revealed.

Based purely on its record, the central bank wouldn’t be receiving extra powers. However, the Conservative-led government has tried to pin the blame for the credit crunch on the previous Labour government’s policies – in particular, its decision to take away the central bank’s responsibility for banking supervision. Hence, it has become politically convenient to reverse that move.

Given this, the priority should be to enhance the Bank of England’s accountability. Under the current system, the government sets inflation targets and picks the governor. It also chooses the deputy governors and members of two committees: the monetary policy committee which sets interest rates; and the financial policy committee which will soon be responsible for financial stability. Their independent members help prevent the governor becoming too dominant.

The Bank of England also has a board, called the Court. But this has been largely ineffective. Though it has recently stepped up its scrutiny of the central bank’s executives, it is hamstrung because it rightly has no say over policy or who is the governor.

Meanwhile, parliament can call the governor and other senior officials in to give evidence. Although this is a potentially important check to the central bank’s power, MPs haven’t yet used this tool effectively.

One way of improving democratic control would be to give MPs the right to hold nomination hearings and, in extremis, reject the government’s choice for governor and other top positions. Indeed, that’s what parliamentarians want. But the government is resisting. If MPs are to change its mind, they must first show they are up to the job.”

Let’s come back to this when we’ve diagnosed the problem.

Because I still feel I haven’t made my point fully.

What the Libor affair shows us is that regulation must be mechanical, not moral.

This is a lesson we failed to learn from King’s behaviour during the financial crisis, despite his starving the UK banks of liquidity in a misguided attempt at preventing “moral hazard”; his expressed desire to stitch up Lloyds shareholders with a backroom deal to take over Northern Rock; and the actual outrageous stitch-up of Lloyds shareholders with a backroom deal to take over HBoS without adequate due diligence, to which he must at least have given a nod.

My first post on the Libor-fiddling topic touched on the subject of culture:

“The excuse for laying into Diamond seems to be some problem with the ‘culture’ at Barclays. Is it any different to that at any other investment bank? Doesn’t the ‘culture’ in any occupation go with the turf? Presumably they don’t want traders to behave like, say, Premier League footballers, or Hollywood actors. Something less flash perhaps: doctors, say or IT guys. But would they still be able to do the job? These occupations surely require quite different qualities and aptitudes. Maybe something a little more sales oriented, perhaps, then: used car dealers or estate agents. Or politicians! But are these professions more or less honest than investment banking? I’m stuck. Perhaps our politicians could spell out exactly how they want investment bankers to behave.”

The aim of yesterday’s post was to develop the idea that the “scandal” is being treated as a moral issue. There’s something “bad” about Barclays, we’re told, and the Bank of England Governor, with ex officio moral authority, judges it comes from the top and fires the Chief Executive.

But what is “culture”?

This is what an editorial, “Culture shock”, in yesterday’s FT (I’m getting my full £2.50 worth!) suggested:

“Culture is not a fluffy chimera of business how-to books or self-congratulatory corporate reports. Culture, real and unnoticed as the air we breathe, is the web of unspoken mutual understandings that frame what people expect from others and think is expected of them. This web shapes the fortunes of any organisation or social group. Bob Diamond, Barclays’ disgraced ex-chief executive, knew this; he once declared ‘the evidence of culture is how people behave when no one is watching’. He was right…

… [non sequiturs omitted]

A culture cannot be heavy-handedly ‘managed’ by legislation or compliance rules alone. It must be more subtly cultivated and tended.”

OK, we can all agree that behaviour within an organisation is determined by executive example and communications; organisational stories; dress code; building architecture, location and decoration; the presence or absence of game rooms; and so on and so forth – as well as the nature and demands of the work, as I previously stressed. But within all that complexity, all we’re really concerned about here is that rules are followed. There may be indirect ways of achieving this goal by means of some kind of arcane cultural alchemy – would Fairtrade coffee, beanbags and dress-down days work? who knows? – but most people would consider it sensible to simply focus on the outcome.

Obviously the “rules alone” are not enough. There also needs to be an expectation of enforcement. A rooting out of dishonesty. And maybe by spending £100m on investigating Libor-fixing rather than, say, carrying out some “routine email housekeeping” (didn’t something like that come up with News International?), Barclays have shown a willingness to steer their internal culture in the direction of obeying the rules.

With this unsatisfactory view of “culture” in mind, let’s consider the crucial question for the future, the “Mervyn King Question”: Is it possible for the Governor to both exercise moral authority AND for there to be effective oversight of the role?

No, of course not. The Governor can’t both exercise his judgement AND explain the detailed reasons for a decision. If he can explain the precise reasons to whoever he, the Governor is accountable, for example those for firing Bob Diamond (“he broke rule 44b clause 3, which is a sacking offence”), then by definition he isn’t exercising judgement.

The Mervyn King Question suggests then that we have to decide which way we jump. Do we want, in the modern world, to trust the personal judgement of an unelected official, or do we want a team expert in banking regulation to ensure that the rules and sanctions for breaking them are clear to banks and that bank behaviour is monitored and the rules enforced?

Do we want a ruler or do we want rules?

The traditional role of the Governor of the Bank of England was one of arbitrary power. This is where Mervyn King believes we should return. No wonder the job of Governor is so coveted.

But there’s a different path. Surely we’d be better off rejecting the moral approach and focusing on the technical aspects of the role of Governor of the Bank of England?

Let’s take as an example the critical case, where it all started to go wrong, when I first became concerned about the outlook of Mervyn King. Instead of arbitrarily allowing banks (such as Northern Rock) to fail to try to prevent “moral hazard” shouldn’t the Bank have made the rules absolutely clear in advance? NR would not, I’m sure, have relied on interbank funding had it’s executives known that funding may be allowed to dry up and they would have to retire in disgrace.

I would suggest that the Bank start by announcing that it will not allow any Bank to fail due to systemic problems (as opposed to Baring-style sudden catastrophic losses), but will provide liquidity as lender of last resort. What constitutes “systemic” would need clear definition, as would the cost of such support which would include a requirement for banks to raise capital. We have to recognise that we can never allow banks to fail under stress – such failures simply cascade through the economy – and dismiss the nonsense that such a backstop is some kind of subsidy for institutions that are “too big to fail”. This is like saying that Tesco is subsidised because the State provides resources for the prosecution and punishment of shop-lifters.

The Libor-fiddling that mattered – that before the financial crisis – was arguably criminality, pure and simple. It was orchestrated by a small group of traders who knew they were breaking the rules, as their emails make clear: “I would prefer this not be in any book!”, “if you breathe a word of this I’m not telling you anything else” and so on. It became a “scandal” because politicians – principally Ed Miliband – immediately made hay. But business isn’t politics. It’s not primarily about character (neither should politics be, of course, but the UK political process is becoming ever more Presidential and less policy-driven). The danger of allowing the political process to drive banking or other business regulation is that there is no satisfactory answer to the Mervyn King question. Even were we to confer moral authority on the Governor as we do the Prime Minister (who is not only elected, but easier to get rid of than the Governor – men in grey suits and all that), business is not hierarchical like government. It is fundamentally about choice and competition. Differences in outlook are necessary.

Dismissing company bosses in an attempt to change the corporate “culture” would seem to necessarily worsen group-think. If all our banks had been the same perhaps they’d all be part owned by the State now. Perhaps they’d all been like HBoS. As it is, Barclays managed to recapitalise without calling on government funds, Santander expanded and the “elephant” HSBC simply marched on barely affected. Diversity matters.

At worst, of course, there is no difference between condemning a bank’s culture and firing the boss simply because you don’t like the cut of his jib.

I promised I’d return to the points Hugo Dixon made. We may well need some or all of the means Dixon suggests for holding the Governor to account. But before we can do that, Parliament needs to step back and look at how the Governor’s role is defined. They need to review his Terms of Reference. Make sure he’s clear what the rules are.

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July 18, 2012

Battling for Mount LIBOR, the Moral High Ground

Filed under: Barclays, Business practices, Credit crisis, Economics, FT, LIBOR, Media, Politics, Regulation, UK — Tim Joslin @ 4:17 pm

If you’re going to watch one film about the Vietnam War then I recommend Hamburger Hill. The point of the film for me at least (other discussions of the movie fail to stress this point) was that the battle was not about the strategic value of the eponymous high ground. Rather, both sides were trying to demonstrate their determination.

Catching up with an episode of Mock the Week last evening, I chanced on a rant by the one I would refer to as the tall, skinny panelist with dark curly hair, had the internet not been invented purely to allow me to remind myself that his name is, in fact, Chris Addison. The comic – who I always feel differs from his generally less hirsute colleagues in looking less like a funny-man, and more like a particularly tedious sociology lecturer – observed at some length that everyone is furious about the Libor “scandal”, even though most of them they don’t have a clue what it’s about. Well observed, in my opinion.

My first post on the Libor topic attempted to convey this moral dimension – and the battle for authority – with its title, Saint Mervyn: King by Name, King by Nature, but perhaps I wandered slightly off the theme, in favour of providing a narrative.

It seems clear after Mervyn King’s appearance before the Treasury Select Committee yesterday, though, that the Governor chose the Libor issue as the ground on which to continue a war with the City, and in particular with Bob Diamond. We’re told that Diamond’s sacking was not just about the Libor issue, but about Barclays’ “culture”, and a “pattern of behaviour”, as discussed in correspondence between Lord Turner, head of the FSA and Marcus Agius, Barclays’ Chairman. It seems clear that nothing new had emerged to implicate Bob Diamond personally and that King therefore simply seized the opportunity to get rid of him. Here’s how the Guardian puts it in an editorial:

“And why exactly was Mr Diamond pushed out? Not for any direct involvement in the Libor scandal but, in the words of Mr King yesterday: ‘They [the bank] have been sailing too close to the wind across a wide number of areas.’ No actual infraction; just a general sense of having gone too far for too long. … The impression left is of rather rough justice.”

Indeed, I’m reminded, the Libor scandal itself is nothing new. Although I now seem to have run out of free views of FT.com pages (so pushed the boat out and bought a copy this morning – £2.50, they’re having a laugh!), I did manage to access an old story that I’d bookmarked:

Banks served subpoenas in Libor case

By Brooke Masters and Patrick Jenkins in London and Justin Baer in New York

Regulators probing alleged manipulation of a key interbank lending rate have focused their demands for information and interviews on five global banks, according to people familiar with the investigation.

UBS, Bank of America, Citigroup and Barclays have received subpoenas from US regulators probing the setting of the London interbank offered rate, or Libor, for US dollars between 2006 and 2008. …”

Who says bookmarking thousands of interesting news stories is a waste of time, eh?

And this one FT story contained links to pieces in the FT’s Lex and Lombard columns, as well as another story the previous day:

“Big banks investigated over Libor

By Brooke Masters and Patrick Jenkins in London and Justin Baer in New York

Regulators in the US, Japan and UK are investigating whether some of the biggest banks conspired to ‘manipulate’ the benchmark interest rate used to calculate the cost of billions of dollars of debt.

The investigation centres on the panel of 16 banks that help the British Bankers’ Association set the London interbank offered rate, or Libor – the estimated cost of borrowing for banks between each other.

In particular, the investigation was looking at how Libor was set for US dollars during 2006 to 2008, immediately before and during the financial crisis, people familiar with the probes said.

The probe came to light on Tuesday when the Swiss bank UBS disclosed in its annual report that it had received subpoenas from three US agencies and an information demand from the Japanese Financial Supervisory Agency. …”

When were these stories published? 15th and 16th March, 2011.

Now, I may not be willing to fork out for an FT subscription, but I’m sure Bob Diamond and Mervyn King are. In fact, they probably receive the “Pink’un” as a perk of their jobs.

Regular readers will know that I’m very guarded in anything resembling an accusation that I may occasionally make on here, but it does indeed beggar belief that everyone involved is claiming to have been unaware of the brewing Libor scandal – a matter relevant to banks’ annual company reports – until the last few weeks, since even I knew about it, and the Libor-setting process was, until this month, of course, of somewhat peripheral interest to me, and even that overstates my curiosity. My £2.50 copy of the FT quotes Mervyn King on the front page as saying:

“The first I knew of any alleged wrongdoing was when the reports came out two weeks ago.”

Doesn’t the Governor read the FT? If not, why not?

To the extent I worried about it, I assumed the likelihood of fines over Libor-rigging was “in the price” of bank shares (we must be at the point where banks start assuming a few hundred mill in fines each year as part of their business plans, and therefore product-pricing). Active investors must have also thought bank share prices took account of the Libor investigation, as otherwise they would have sold the banks, short if necessary.

As I mentioned yesterday, Libor manipulation – much of which occurred during the financial crisis when the numbers were guesses anyway – would seem to be less serious than HSBC’s desultory attitude towards controls to prevent money-laundering. (Rather predictably, HSBC have seemingly gone overnight from one extreme to the other: I have recently had an HSBC account, to which I log in online 2 or 3 times a month, locked down – “suspended” so I can’t even pay into it – for no apparent reason).

No, Libor has been chosen as a battleground.

Sacking Bob Diamond makes no sense otherwise. Barclays report that they spent £100m “to ensure no stone has been left unturned” in their internal investigation and have settled early with the regulators. Since this has not been enough to keep the top guys in their jobs, perhaps their successors will adopt a different strategy next time!

And, like a misjudged military intervention, the battle threatens to turn into a war, consuming its instigators.

Mervyn King has clearly over-stepped his authority and threatened his legacy: “It is the BoE that finds itself most directly in the line of fire”, writes the FT’s Chris Giles. Not only are more and more awkward questions being asked in the UK, the regulators across the Pond are now playing holier than thou. That FT front-page lead (taking precedence over a report of the HSBC compliance chief quitting during a US Senate hearing!) is titled: “Bernanke calls Libor a ‘flawed’ benchmark”, and observes that “Mr Bernanke’s description of how the US reacted [earlier, in 2007] to claims that banks were understating the rates at which they could borrow contrasted with testimony yesterday from Sir Mervyn King.”

Mervyn King’s “pattern of behaviour” suggests to me that he may have been bullied at school. If not, I rather suspect he’s now going to find out what it’s like at his regular central-banker get-togethers.

July 17, 2012

Bashing Barclays Badly

Filed under: Barclays, BBC, Business practices, Credit crisis, Economics, LIBOR, Media, Politics, Regulation — Tim Joslin @ 6:10 pm

I noted yesterday that I’d set the recorder to catch Jerry del Messier’s appearance before the Treasury Select Committee. Sadly, when I got home I found I had filled my hard disc with several hours of BBC News 24, which contained no more than 7 minutes of coverage, including “analysis” of the session. Clearly the BBC is not so bothered to get to the heart of the matter.

Never mind, I watched a bit on Parliament TV this morning, after warming up with some live coverage (thanks BBC) of Mervyn King’s appearance, flanked by his deputies and Adair Turner, like a bunch of schoolboys caught reading top-shelf magazines behind the bike-sheds.

Unlike the BBC, the MPs are trying gamely, but you really have to wonder if the process works properly. Maybe just two or three of them should ask all the questions, to avoid lines of questioning being dropped just as it gets interesting, as keeps happening when it’s another Member’s turn for a few minutes in the limelight.

Still, I wasn’t disappointed by del Messier’s grilling (you missed broadcasting some great live TV, BBC), but a couple of points seemed to pass the MPs by.

First, it finally became clear that Bob Diamond’s infamous memo was sent the day after the phone call it records, as suggested by the timestamp. Here’s the full memo:

“From: Diamond, Bob: Barclays Capital

Sent: 10/30/2008 14:19:54

To: Varley, John: Barclays PLC

Cc: del Missier, Jerry: Barclays Capital (NYK)

Subject: File note: Bank of England call

Fyi

File Note: Call to RED [Diamond] from Paul Tucker, Bank of England

Date: 29th October 2008

Further to our last call, Mr Tucker reiterated that he had received calls from a number of senior figures within Whitehall to question why Barclays was always toward the top end of the Libor pricing. His response was ‘you have to pay what you have to pay’. I asked if he could relay the reality, that not all banks were providing quotes at the levels that represented real transactions, his response ‘oh, that would be worse’.

I explained again our market rate driven policy and that it had recently meant that we appeared in the top quartile and on occasion the top decile of the pricing. Equally I noted that we continued to see others in the market posting rates at levels that were not representative of where they would actually undertake business. This latter point has on occasion pushed us higher than would otherwise appear to be the case. In fact, we are not having to ‘pay up’ for money at all.

Mr Tucker stated the levels of calls he was receiving from Whitehall were ‘senior’ and that while he was certain we did not need advice, that it did not always need to be the case that we appeared as high as we have recently.

RED [Diamond]”

I was surprised, to say the least, that none of the Select Committee noticed this delay the first time round when they might have asked Diamond what he did in the intervening time (he phoned del Messier, it turns out, though I recollect Diamond didn’t recollect this). Diamond, I remember, testified at some length that he was concerned that Barclays might appear weak whilst trying to finalise its life-saving Middle East share sale. Surely he would not have waited a day before relaying the message from Tucker.

Second, the MPs are completely failing to distinguish between different periods of Libor fiddling. From 2005-7 traders in Barclays and elsewhere were persuading the rate-setters to submit a Barclays Libor rate in order to try to make money. This is appalling – see the FSA’s report (pdf) for the salacious details. But after 2007 Libor wasn’t working. Interbank lending wasn’t happening. The FSA write:

“In the latter half of 2007 and throughout 2008, lending in London for maturities longer than overnight came to a virtual standstill and there was extreme dislocation in global money markets.”

So the banks were just making a judgement as to what they might be able to borrow at. Since it was just a guess, it stands to reason that if they were guessing higher than every other bank they may as well guess lower. “Low-balling” Libor was done for an entirely different reason from mid 2007 on – top-down from management, rather than bottom-up by traders – so as not to appear weak.

What strikes me is that by releasing Diamond’s file note, Barclays have successfully steered the MPs away from the criminality and into the increasingly murky area of Libor-setting during the financial crisis. Damage-limitation PR, basically, though that’s fairly moot from Diamond’s point of view right now, but the MPs really should have tried to distinguish between the two periods. The symptoms may be similar – dodgy Libor submissions – but the causes are different. Both hayfever and a cold might cause you to sneeze, but you’d treat the two conditions quite differently.

The Committee session with Mervyn King this morning was quite different. The Governor didn’t seem to realise he was in the dock. He was shirty with his inquisitors, and even tried to talk over one. And Andrew Tyrie seemed genuinely cross. He shared the concerns I expressed yesterday. Trouble is, dealing with King is like having a 6 foot shark on a line intended for mackerel. He seems to be pulling in several different directions at once. One minute he’s the regulator (on the grounds that the function is being handed back to the BoE), the next he’s not. One minute Diamond is being fired because of the outcry over Libor, the next it’s to do with a letter from the FSA (the Guardian has posted it here).

I hope and expect Tyrie’s report to be critical of the Governor, and the governance of the Bank of England.

Here are a couple of questions to think about:
– why doesn’t the Bank of England have separate Chairman (and Board) and Chief Executive roles? The Governor would then be – as the Chief Exec – at least accountable to someone.
– if this is what happens when they don’t like the “culture” (or just the CEO) at a bank/a few corners are cut on a poorly defined technical procedures during a once in a lifetime crisis (which all the other banks might have been doing as well)/a few traders find a new way to cheat a poorly-defined system (which might have been happening at all the banks) – delete as applicable, depending why you think Diamond was sacked – then what are they going to do when a bank does something really bad? Like, for example, allowing widespread money-laundering, as HSBC seems to have done.

July 16, 2012

Saint Mervyn: King by Name, King by Nature

I’ve been following the Libor scandal with considerable interest. The former Chief Operating Officer of Barclays Jerry del Messier should be settling into his chair before the UK House of Commons Treasury Select Committee as I write these words – don’t worry, I’ve set the recorder for the BBC News Channel.

Perhaps we’ll find out the answer to why Jerry del Messier was cleared of rigging Libor on the grounds that, according to Barclays’ briefing note (pdf) issued ahead of Bob Diamond’s appearance before the Select Committee he:

“…concluded that an instruction had been passed down from the Bank of England not to keep LIBORs so high. He passed down an instruction to that effect to the submitters.”

on the basis of Diamond’s infamous note to file which suggested that Paul Tucker, Deputy Governer of the Bank of England had advised that:

“…while he was certain we did not need advice, that it did not always need to be the case that we appeared as high as we have recently.”

The mysteriousness of it all arises because Barclays was already lowering its Libor submissions. They admit that during the period Sept 2007 – April 2008:

“Less senior managers gave instructions to Barclays submitters to lower their LIBOR submissions. The origin of these instructions is not clear.”

You’d think that when Jerry del Messier told his rate-setters to “lowball”, someone might have mentioned that they were already doing it!

I really like the point in Barclays memo that:

“[del Messier’s] instruction became redundant after a few days as liquidity flowed back into the market.”

“Became” redundant? His instruction was already redundant!

It’s not del Messier’s behaviour that really bothers me about the whole affair. It seems all the banks were at it, and Barclays may not have been the worst culprit. Barclays is just the first to settle. And the only logical explanation I can think of for George Osborne’s strange claim that Libor lowballing was sanctioned by Balls, Brown and Vadera is that it was an open secret in the City.

After all, no-one would borrow at a rate inflated by concerns that the banks might fail, as opposed to one simply reflecting risk, the base rate and the balance between supply and demand for money. Libor simply doesn’t work in those circumstances. The authorities would be obliged to address the problem any way they could in order to save the economy.

I hate to see public bullying. It seems our politicians – and many in the media and, notably, Mervyn King – just don’t like Bob Diamond. What will they do when they run out of obvious scapegoats? The excuse for laying into Diamond seems to be some problem with the “culture” at Barclays. Is it any different to that at any other investment bank? Doesn’t the “culture” in any occupation go with the turf? Presumably they don’t want traders to behave like, say, Premier League footballers, or Hollywood actors. Something less flash perhaps: doctors, say or IT guys. But would they still be able to do the job? These occupations surely require quite different qualities and aptitudes. Maybe something a little more sales oriented, perhaps, then: used car dealers or estate agents. Or politicians! But are these professions more or less honest than investment banking? I’m stuck. Perhaps our politicians could spell out exactly how they want investment bankers to behave.

Or perhaps Mervyn King could tell us. After all, he’s the one who fired Bob Diamond – never mind that the regulatory investigation is far from complete. Is he going to fire the heads of a dozen other banks?

Never mind that the real reason seems to be some problem with Barclays “culture”, it’s not actually Mervyn King’s job to sack the Chief Executives of banks. Or anyone else employed by a bank for that reason. And even if it was King’s job, he would be obliged to follow due process.

Diamond could be forced to step down if the Financial Services Authority found he was not a “fit and proper” person. Which didn’t happen.

Or if he lost the confidence of Barclays’ shareholders. He might have done, I suppose, but that’s not why he went.

No, Marcus Agius (Barclays Chairman and ex-Chairman) explained what happened:

“Agius told MPs that the chief executive had quit ‘because it became clear that he lost the support of his regulators’ just 48 hours before the American-born Diamond was scheduled to appear before the committee.

Agius described how he had been summoned, along with Sir Michael Rake, the most senior non-executive director on the Barclays board, to see King shortly after Agius’s resignation had been announced a week ago on Monday.

‘We had a conversation in which he said that Bob Diamond no longer enjoyed the support of his regulators,’ said Agius, who then had to hold an emergency board meeting by telephone of non-executive directors to decide how to proceed. He admitted to being shocked as concerns had not been raised when the £290m fine for attempting to manipulate Libor rigging emerged five days earlier.

Agius said he and Rake went to Diamond’s home on the Monday evening. Diamond – who had insisted to MPs last week that he did not know about any regulatory pressures – ‘was not in a good place’, said Agius. He said that the conversation was ‘not long’ and that Diamond had asked for time to talk to his family.

‘I left his [Diamond’s] house confident he would resign, if he hadn’t done so already,’ Agius said.”

Staggering.

I’m surprised there’s not been more outcry at such authoritarian behaviour by the Governor of the Bank of England, who is, after all, just a public official.

One exception is Philip Inman who provides some background in a Guardian piece titled “How Mervyn King Finally Got Bob Diamond.”

“…from the moment the credit crunch began to wreck Northern Rock’s finances in the summer of 2007, the grammar-school boy from Wolverhampton, whose father was a railway worker and then a geography teacher, was ready with his analysis. King said most of the huge debts accumulated by banks could be tied to the huge bonuses executives received as reward for their lending.

In meetings with regulators and then chancellor Alistair Darling, Diamond, then head of Barclays Capital, and his investment banking peers were seen as a bunch of amoral, greedy traders. Darling relates in his diaries how King would counsel against providing rescue funds that perpetuated a risk-taking culture.

But it was Diamond, one of nine children and also the son of a teacher, who made it public and personal. At a time when most bankers were busy trying to prevent their institutions going bust, he broke cover to give an interview in a Sunday newspaper. In an analysis of central banks’ actions in combating the credit squeeze, Diamond notably excluded the Bank of England from praise.

He said providing short-term cash was the job of a central bank. ‘For the recovery to continue we need to find more ways to get liquidity into the short end of the curve,’ he said. ‘That’s down to confidence, and that’s down to the central banks. We’ve seen thoughtful moves by the [US Federal Reserve] and the [European Central Bank].’

The Bank of England saw the interview as a direct attack on its handling of the crisis. King’s response was to embark on a series of speeches and interviews in which he openly decried the emergence of a ‘small elite’ that agreed to pay itself bonuses in good times and bad.”

So petty. Maybe Mervyn is touchy – I think Diamond was right. Perhaps, if King had behaved more like other central bankers, we’d have a healthier banking industry today, and Ed Miliband wouldn’t be threatening to break up the survivors to create more competition. Don’t forget that Alliance & Leicester, Bradford & Bingley and Northern Rock have all disappeared from our high streets.

What’s more, blaming the financial crisis on bank bonuses is simplistic to say the least.

And perhaps central bankers should have seen the housing bubble warning signs a bit earlier.

Another commentator who hasn’t let the matter pass is Hugo Dixon who suggests at Reuter’s that the “BoE governor’s arm-twisting raises tricky issues”:

“…on whose behalf exactly was King speaking? The BoE, after all, is not responsible for supervising banks – and won’t be until next year. That’s still the job of the Financial Services Authority. If King wasn’t speaking for the FSA too, he was arguably stepping beyond his authority.

On the other hand, if the BoE governor was speaking on the FSA’s behalf, why didn’t the regulator itself deliver the message that Diamond should go? And why too did the FSA apparently change its position? After all, the regulator had only just agreed a settlement with Barclays over the Libor rate-fixing scandal. If it had wanted Diamond to go, that would have been the moment to say so.

A further question is how exactly the regulators managed to twist Barclays’ arm. If the FSA doesn’t support a bank director in his role, the current mechanism for removing the executive is to deem him no longer ‘fit and proper’. But it seems hard to argue that Diamond didn’t meet that test. After all, the lengthy investigation into the Libor scandal did not criticise him personally.

Some people will no doubt say it is good that Diamond has gone and it doesn’t really matter how that was engineered. But methods used in difficult situations can easily become precedents.

The BoE is about to become even more powerful next year when it takes over banking supervision. It is important that it operates in a transparent and accountable fashion.”

Quite.

July 13, 2012

2012 Not Record Warmest in English History (Probably) Shock!

Filed under: Global warming, Science, UK climate trends — Tim Joslin @ 6:04 pm

OK, this is the last on the weather for a while, honest – there was a bit of a backlog.

After some prevarication, I’m calling it. It’s now very unlikely that 2012 will be the warmest year in the Central England Temperature (CET) record:


The point, of course, is that, due to global warming, this particular record is vulnerable every year.

But, as the above figure shows, this year (represented by the green column at the extreme right of the above histogram) has not been quite warm enough.

And the outlook – given that the mean Central England temperature for July is approaching 16C, and London must be warmer than that – is distinctly chilly (and somewhat damp):

Thanks to the exceptionally useful WeatherCast site for that one.

The Wetterzentrale site that I also like provides some pretty pictures showing the cold air around the UK:

Of course, nothing’s certain in this weather business and there’s always the possibility of some freak warmth in the later part of the year. In fact, I hesitated before writing this post when I checked what happened in 2006, the warmest year in the CET:

The back of an envelope reveals that the average temperature to the end of June 2006 was only around +0.53C warmer than in an average year (“the anomaly was +0.53C” in the jargon), roughly what it is now:

Thanks (again) due to Tim Legg at the Met Office who maintains this data.

To be honest, I’ve actually been hesitating on calling off this year’s record warmth attempt since mid-February when I noticed that January’s mildness had been wiped out by the cold snap which had by then given us several days of lying snow in Ealing, no doubt a significant anomaly on that measure for the third winter running (Met Office graphics not yet available). It’s been an interesting year so far, what with widespread flooding during the drought and all. After the exceptionally mild – and dry – March, I thought the record might be back on again. But by mid-May – before the warm (and dry) spell in the second half of that month – I was again nearly ready to declare it wouldn’t happen this year.

Now, the anomaly is at +0.52C in mid-July and, with no warm settled weather on the horizon, it’s beginning to seem more and more like an unsuccessful run-chase in limited overs cricket. Now, as the Met Office point out (above), every day that’s less than 2.29C warmer than usual for the time of year leaves us further behind the record.

In fact, this summer is so far even cooler (anomaly -0.6C so far, see above) than last year’s (-0.53C for June through August, see below) which I’ve shown was an around a once a century event, compared to contemporary summers:

Unsolicited Advice to Authorities on Droughts

Filed under: Global warming, Science, Science and the media, UK climate trends — Tim Joslin @ 4:24 pm

Yesterday’s post suggested, first, that we’re not yet very good, at least in the UK, at forecasting rainfall 1 to 3 months ahead and, second, that reliance on the forecasts we do have when declaring droughts is, to say the least, a tad foolish.

Today, I’d like to make some constructive suggestions. I’m trying to differentiate myself from the knockers, such as Watts Up With That, though I have to say doing so requires some self-control.

As I understand it, the procedure in the UK is that the Environment Agency (EA) declares droughts based in part on advice from the Met Office, and the water supply companies then take action, such as to impose hosepipe bans, depending on their own particular situations. Some companies have more water storage than others, and the types of such resources differ: different considerations apply to aquifers, rivers and reservoirs during droughts. My suggestions are, first, to the Met Office and Environment Agency regarding rainfall modelling and the use of such forecasts, and, second, primarily to the EA, but also the water companies, regarding how droughts are declared and managed.

Pouring Cold Water on Rainfall Modelling
The Met Office (and the EA) need to seriously consider whether their current long-range (1 to 3 months out) computer forecasting models are actually yet fit for purpose. We need these forecasts, so they should persevere. Maybe this year’s extreme rainfall can provide some clues as to what the models are missing.

I thought it would be fun (I said I’d need self-control) to juxtapose the actual UK rainfall over the 3 months April to June 2012 with the forecast. Here’s the exact same Met Office figure I presented yesterday, but with big red arrows added indicating what actually happened:

I feel I should let the right hand figure sink in, so far is the outcome (the big red arrow) from the model forecasts (the column of blue +’s).

In case you don’t believe me, here are graphs of UK rainfall by calendar month for each year since 1910, from the Met Office:



You can read the rainfall totals yourself: 126.5mm in April, ~67.5mm in May, 145.3mm in June (the April and June figures were in the media – I can’t see where the Met Office publishes these, so had to estimate May’s from the graph).

Hopefully the deviation of the outcome from the forecasts has now sunk in.

Let’s look again at the scatter of the rainfall forecasts for 2012 (the columns of +’s in the top figure). The giveaway as that the scatter of rainfall forecasts for 2012 – when the initial air temperature, humidity and pressure, sea surface temperature (SST), soil moisture conditions and so on were known – is very similar to the scatter of actual rainfall over the 30 years 1971-2000, the left-hand column of x’s in each half of the figure. But the initial conditions in 1971-2000 were all different! If the model had any skill at all the forecasts for 2012 should be more bunched up than the actual rainfall for a set of other years. They’re not. Assuming the explanation I gave yesterday for the slight bias in the forecasts is correct, these model outputs simply do not tell us anything useful.

But what else might the scatter tell us? Counting the +’s suggests we’re looking at more than 30 model runs (it’s difficult to count them exactly as they may overlie each other). If we assume they’re normally distributed, we’d expect the most extreme point to be getting on for 2 standard deviations (SDs, often “sigma”) from the mean (about 1 in 40 should be above 2 SDs greater than the mean and a similar number more than 2 SDs below) at each tail (in this case most and least rainfall) of the distribution.

Now, in the left-hand plot, of rainfall just for April, we see that what actually occurred was only slightly more rainfall than that implied by the model-run which predicted the wettest weather. One might imagine that if there had been, say, 100 model runs, there’s a good chance that one of them would have predicted as much rain as actually occurred.

But in the right-hand plot, of rainfall for April through June, we see that what actually occurred was getting on for twice as much more rainfall greater than the mean than the wettest model run. That is, if the wettest model run was around 2 SDs above the mean, what actually occurred was around 4 SDs greater. Statistical tables suggest that only 1 in 30,000 model runs would predict as much rainfall as actually occurred!

It seems a bit unlikely that a 1 in 30,000 event would have occurred in the relatively short time that this forecasting technique has been used. One might therefore suppose that the modelling technique used is not capable of predicting events such as the extreme 2012 UK rainfall.

One way to test this hypothesis would, of course, be to run the model tens of thousands of times with the same initial data as input for the April to June 2012 UK rainfall forecasts (the technique presumably is to make slight changes to the initial conditions for each model run, to ensure they don’t come out the same).

It might also be worth reflecting on why the models might not work. What might they be missing? There’s only really one possibility. There must be (positive) feedbacks in the real world that are not being captured by the model. Presumably the models adjust soil moisture in response to rainfall, a positive feedback as increased soil moisture leads to evaporation which tends to lower atmospheric pressure (it allows more heat to be absorbed before the temperature rises), which in turn enables more rainfall. But do the models adjust the characteristics of surface vegetation in response to rainfall? Quite possibly not. But greater rates of growth (in response to rainfall) will increase the leaf area available to promote evaporation, feeding back to lower pressure and more rainfall, just as for soil moisture. It may be significant that this mis-forecasting occurred in the spring.

It’s also worth noting that extreme real-world events (the 2003 heatwave is another UK example) reveal model shortcomings far more clearly than do average weather conditions. In a normal year rainfall would have been within the modelled range, so no serious discrepancy would have been apparent, even if the models in fact predicted very different weather conditions to those which actually occurred.

So I suggest a bit of pencil-sharpening over at the Met Office!

Why Wasn’t the Drought Rained Off a Bit Sooner?
The other thing that has struck me about this year’s drought is that it’s only just been called off.

This makes no sense. The drought restrictions came in at the end of March. But by the end of April the shortfall in March (shown the following figure) had been more than made up.

The figure shows there was around 36mm of rainfall in March compared to about 95mm in an average year. The graph for April (above) shows 126.5mm against an average of about 70mm. March + April rainfall averages around 95+70 = 165mm, and this year was 126.5+36 = 162.5mm, near enough normal.

So why wasn’t the drought called off at the end of April? Or, alternatively – if average rainfall was not going to be enough – why weren’t we officially in drought at the start of March rather than at the end?

Part of the answer must be that there’s not a lot of point in calling a drought before April, since the water restrictions triggered by a drought declaration – typically hosepipe and sprinkler bans – are fairly pointless before then because hardly anyone wants to water their garden anyway. But if there’s an implicit annual timetable for drought management, why doesn’t the Environment Agency publish it? Keep the public onside, guys!

It may also simply be that, because we use more water in the summer, the crunch point – when water supplies would become dangerously low without significant rainfall – is more months away in the winter than in the summer. If this is the logic, then maybe the EA should provide numeric data along the lines of “assuming only 50% [or whatever is realistic – note that specific forecasts are ignored in this methodology, since, as we’ve established, they’re just not good enough yet] of average rainfall and average use for the time of year, we have n months of water supplies”. Specific restrictions would be triggered by different values of n, that is, if it were below, say 9, hosepipe and sprinkler bans would come into effect. Of course, n would depend on the region, and in particular the water company. This would allow water supplier performance to be assessed and companies rewarded for performance, in much the same way as it is intended energy supply companies are to be incentivised to provide capacity as well as kWhs.

A “drought” is something we define – nature just gives us more or less rainfall (and storage). It seems to me the definition of drought could be somewhat smarter and in particular communicated considerably more effectively.

Weather and climate are related. When the authorities look stupid predicting the weather it undermines their messages about climate change.

July 12, 2012

What Drought?

Filed under: Global warming, Science, Science and the media, UK climate trends — Tim Joslin @ 5:11 pm

Because of the weather this July, I’ve decided to work at home today.  I’m keeping one eye on the window and another on the Met Office’s snazzy new weather radar map (select location, tab:map and button:rainfall) – no, I don’t know either why they spent no doubt a fortune changing something that was entirely adequate.  And I suspect it uses more of my scarce computing resources than the previous version, which would have informed me perfectly well that I’ll have to bring the washing in in an hour or two. It’s been a rare opportunity to get that chore done!

It’s been nagging away at me to follow up my previous post which noted how much rain we started having as soon as drought was declared.

It’s not original for me to note the failure of the Met Office’s 3 month predictions.  We had the wettest June as well as the wettest April on record, of course. Watts Up With That saw the same Met Office report for April to Jun (AMJ) (pdf) that I did and adequately contrasts this with the weather that actually occurred in AprilNot A Lot of People Know That, Autonomous Mind and Saxon Times also make hay, figuratively speaking only of course.

I questioned the wisdom last time of extending the region of official drought when it was already raining, around April 16th. It seems this may have been done at least in part on the basis of the Met Office’s AMJ precipitation report (pdf).  Here is the crucial graphic:

What this shows is series of scatters (the columns of x’s and +’s) of the precipitation in April on the left and for April through June on the right that actually occurred in previous years and was predicted for 2012 by a series of model runs.

Now, “scatter” is the operative word, since the model predictions are all over the place.  What this tells me is that the models used have very little skill in predicting precipitation for a given year. That is, they don’t really do any more than predict the rainfall we generally experience.  Perhaps the Met Office refuses to accept this and believes its models do predict something meaningful one to three months ahead.

Nevertheless, as shown by the graphs on the right of each plot, the model predictions were slightly biassed towards drier conditions in 2012.

It’s also possible to note that the models seem to be reasonably well calibrated in that they predict the sorts of amounts of rainfall that occur in the real world.  To say anything more, we’ll have to assume that the models are perfectly calibrated, that is, they aren’t biassed towards predicting less (or more) rainfall than actually occurs, i.e. they don’t always tend to predict less (or more) than average rainfall for a given month regardless of the initial conditions.

Why then, should the models have forecast less rain in 2012, when, as we know, there was rather more than usual?

Here’s my hypothesis: it’s all to do with persistence of the initial conditions.  The point is that weather conditions tend to continue for varying amounts of time.  If it rains today it’s more likely to rain tomorrow than if it’s dry today.  And the models are capturing this aspect of the weather.

An analogy for the financially inclined would be momentum investing. Shares (and other financial instruments) appreciating in value tend to continue to do so. Many investors base their strategies on this simple fact, and indeed it works well. Until the bubble bursts, of course.

This persistence in the weather system is exactly the reason why I was so critical before of the decision to extend the drought when it was actually raining.  The Environment Agency should have waited to see how long that rain was going to last.  They could at least have given themselves a sporting chance of not looking like idiots by waiting until a few dry days were forecast before imposing (or causing the water-supply companies to impose) water-use restrictions.

The timing of when forecasts are prepared is therefore important.  The 3-month AMJ outlook (pdf) was issued on 24th March, presumably based on model runs up to a week or two earlier.   The initial conditions for these model runs would have implied dry weather in late March, since the forecast for up to 10 days has some reliability.  And, because the models have a tendency to predict persistence, they would, on average, have tended to predict drier than usual conditions into April.  After that I expect they would have tended to regress to the mean – as evidenced by the more average weather in the 3 month plot than in the April plot in the graphic above.

In other words, it may be possible to predict, at least qualitatively, just by looking out the window, the results of running suites of these long-term forecasts.

Running the model repeatedly doesn’t yield the truth, but merely reveals any systematic bias – in this case inherent in the methodology.  All reminiscent of the modelling of floods in the UK I looked at a while back, where the exercise simply reinforced the underlying physics that a warmer atmosphere holds more water, which was the systematic bias in that case.

By way of validation of my hypothesis, we can look at the forecasts for rainfall in March through May.  According to the Environment Agency report, “Drought prospects for spring and summer 2012” (pdf) referenced by the BBC on 12th March when the first hosepipe bans were declared, the latest 3 month Met Office forecast was taken into consideration (see Chapter 2).

The Met Office forecast of precipitation from March through May (MAM) (pdf) is dated 24th February and we can see a similar pattern to that for AMJ:

Note again the scatter and the regression to the mean for the longer-term forecast.

Here’s another one, for July through September (pdf), but this time when the initial conditions were set during the wet June:

Surprise, surprise – now we’re expecting the wet weather to continue.

PS Don’t worry, I brought the washing in a few minutes ago – there’d been just a few drops of rain. It’s falling steadily now, though.

The Pensioners’ Crusade

Filed under: Complex decisions, Economics, Inequality, Politics, Public spending, Reflections, UK — Tim Joslin @ 12:06 pm

I noted on Tuesday Nick Boles’ suggestion in a keynote speech at the Resolution Foundation (pdf) to limit certain pensioner benefits to the less well-off:

“Spending on universal benefits for the elderly (the Winter Fuel Allowance, free prescriptions, free bus travel and free TV licenses for the over 75s) reached roughly £4 billion in 2010/11.

I know that this help is vitally important for many older people – and a step away from universal provision of these benefits after the next election would need to be handled very carefully as many members of this generation are admirably reluctant to make a fuss, even when they really need help.

But, does anyone here think it would be responsible for a country in our financial position to go on giving a free TV license to Michael Winner, free prescriptions to Lord Sugar and a winter fuel allowance to Sir Paul McCartney after 2015?”

A point well made.  But, I strongly suspect, to no avail.

I diligently provided links to reaction at the BBC, Guardian, Independent and Mail which all headlined Boles’ hardly original elderly means-testing proposal, even though it would only save £1.5bn of the £8.5bn he says we need to save:

“If we are to achieve stability in our public finances AND make crucial investments in improving productivity and competitiveness, we must find a way to save at least £8.5 billion from the £145 billion we currently spend on benefits other than pensions.”

Popping into Tesco yesterday, though, I noticed that I’d jumped the gun in my headline search.  The Express is going to war on the issue.  Holy war.  Here’s their front page:

I love that capital C in Crusade.  “Upper-case there”, the editor must have ordered.  “We’re not being figurative here.  This is official.  It’ll be there in the history books alongside Richard the Lionheart vs Saladin and, of course, the Children.”

The headline’s a classic as well.  Whereas the Mail and the Independent implicitly accepted the government’s right to cut benefits, but signalled with the A-word (“axe”) that targeting elderly benefits might be a cut too far, the Express went several steps further.  “Secret Plot to Rob Pensioners”.  Hmm.  Not really “secret” is it?  Which means it doesn’t really qualify as a “plot”.  And I think most would agree that discontinuing the provision of a benefit hardly counts as “robbery” (which, strictly speaking, involves violence or the threat of violence, as opposed to theft, which doesn’t).  One might even quibble that it is “pensioners” being “robbed”.  The word “pensioners” has connotations of those struggling to get by on a meagre stipend, and the qualification for the benefits in question is on the basis of age, not – as Boles’ examples of Winner, Sugar and McCartney might suggest – dependency on an annuity.

Boles’ whole point was that benefits would only be withheld from the wealthier elderly, a subtlety somewhat glossed over in the scene-setting opening sentences of the story on the front page of yesterday’s Express:

“A THREAT to strip Britain’s pensioners of benefits such as free bus passes and prescriptions triggered outrage last night.

A key ally of David Cameron yesterday called for strict means testing of claims that also include winter fuel payments and TV licences.

But the move was immediately condemned by charities and OAP groups – and today the Daily Express adds its voice by launching a Fair Deal For Our Pensioners Crusade.

This newspaper urges readers and campaigners alike to support its demand that the Government honours its pledges to pensioners in full, and does nothing to chip away at their universal welfare entitlements. Tory MP Nick Boles caused ­fury after saying the Government could save £4billion a year by stopping better-off pensioners from getting the benefits.”

£4bn/yr is in fact the total cost of the benefits.  Boles hopes to save £1.5bn/yr.

But Cameron’s calculation will be whether £1.5bn is worth the potential electoral damage in 2015 (if the Coalition lasts that long).  He’ll be looking for media outrage at “giving a free TV license to Michael Winner, free prescriptions to Lord Sugar and a winter fuel allowance to Sir Paul McCartney”.  And not finding it.

On one side is most favourable headline to the proposal at the BBC, which reports that the “Rich elderly should lose benefits, says David Cameron ally”.

And on the other is a lot of axeing and the Express’s army of pensioners ready to march against the heathens in Downing Street.

You have to admire the Express.  They understand their constituency.  As, I’m sure, does Cameron.  This kite’s not going to fly.

July 10, 2012

Nick Boles’ Resolutions

Filed under: Complex decisions, Inequality, Media, Politics, Public spending, Reflections, UK — Tim Joslin @ 5:04 pm

Note (12:15 11/7/12): Corrected in 2nd paragraph following a communication from the Resolution Foundation – they are focussed on issues rather than party politics (like the E3 Foundation – I approve) and do not “describe themselves” as “centre-left in outlook”, as I said in the initial version of this post that they “might” do.

I wrote last time that I would try to report on events I attend. For once, I’m keeping my word.

This morning, the Resolution Foundation (RF) hosted the latest in a series of meetings making up its “Commission on Living Standards”, which constitutes a large part of the analysis and policy debate around what Ed Miliband loves to call the “squeezed middle”, that is, as RF put it, “the economic decline of low to middle income Britain”. Heck, the Commission even has its own website, full of bells and whistles. Whilst the RF seems centre-left in outlook, they are politically independent and engaged with all three mainstream political parties. Today was the turn of the Tory and Cameron loyalist Nick Boles, with Lord Adonis chipping in as responder.

Many Resolution Foundation events are heavily trailed and reported in the media, and Nick Boles’ pitch on Raising Living Standards this morning was no exception. Trouble is, the mainstream media inevitably focus on whatever aspect they believe will catch the attention of their readers, so we have “Tories plan to axe pensioners’ benefits” in the Independent, “Limit winter fuel allowance and Sure Start, says Cameron ally” in the Guardian, the more accurate headline “Rich elderly should lose benefits, says David Cameron ally” at the BBC, not to mention the A-word again at the Mail: “Axe free prescriptions and bus passes for the better-off elderly, says Cameron ally”.

Clearly the media would rather scare the horses (check out the comments – and the voting on them – on that BBC story) than present some reasoned argument. No wonder we end up with swathes of incoherent policies.

The Independent’s report gives the best summary of the politics of the situation. Cameron doesn’t want to “axe” benefits for the well-off elderly, because he promised not to in 2010. Will he be able to avoid repeating such a promise in 2015? The question was asked this morning. Although Boles made a good point about how none of the parties faced up to the impending fiscal crisis in 2010, I’m not convinced. I reckon Paul McCartney’s bus-pass is safe for some time yet.

But Boles’ talk was not titled “Pensioner’s perks”. It was much more wide-ranging than that. Indeed, there was much more discussion in the Q&A this morning of tax credits, youth unemployment and even the comparative advantages of the German education system (better for technical students) and that in the UK (better for the academically inclined).

If there was a takeaway policy message from Boles, it was not that the government might try to claw back around £1.5bn/yr from well-off pensioners, it was that they want to find £8.5bn of savings (at 2012 prices) from the welfare budget as a whole by 2016 (by which time that £8.5bn will have inflated to £10.5bn). And my impression was that if it was up to Boles most of the saving would come from child-related benefits, especially those paid to parents (i.e. Child Tax Credits and Child Benefit), as opposed to schools, and Sure Start, which Boles seems to have it in for.

Since the hard-working families demographic is up there in electoral importance with the pensioners-who’ve-earned-the-right, it’s hard to see where any of the £8.5bn is coming from.

The strength – and weakness – of Boles’ approach is that he aims to be ruthlessly analytical. So he laid down 4 principles:
(1) Only those areas of spending that measurably increase the competitiveness of the economy should be allowed to increase faster than GDP.
(2) As implied by (1), spending on other areas (police, defence, environment etc) must fall relative to GDP.
(3) Areas of recent public-spending growth must decline relative to GDP.
(4) There should be no new areas of spending.

This leads to some overly-rigid thinking, in my opinion. For example, principle (4) seems to preclude a resolution of the elderly care issue, which has revived this week (apparently all-party talks broke down some time ago – like Adonis, I despair at the Westminster political process). And principle (1) relies on measurements, which are not simple in practice – this seems to be why Boles doesn’t like Sure Start.

During the Q&A though, it became clear that Boles has another principle:
(5) Public spending must decline as a proportion of GDP.
Boles said he didn’t go as far as David Laws, who has apparently called for a reduction in public spending as a proportion of GDP to 35%, from 45% after the financial crisis, but implied 40% was a ceiling (Osborne is trying to get it back down to around 39%, similar to the level under New Labour).

Of course, as Adonis pointed out, growth is key, and could reduce the tax-take percentage simply by increasing the denominator (GDP).

But the real weakness in Boles’ thinking is that it ascribes a cost to money that is simply paid to the Exchequer and then paid back out again. This is illogical. A perk is still a perk whether it is a free bus pass (counts towards the public spending percentage) or preferable tax treatment (doesn’t count). You could save money by taking away free bus passes for well-off over 65s or by requiring over 65s to pay National Insurance (NI). Now you or I would weigh up the pros and cons of both these measures. But Nick Boles doesn’t look at it that way. He’s wrong – the public only care about the rate of tax they pay (and to be honest even that’s irrational – they should only care when it changes, as pay rates adjust to the tax regime over time). People certainly don’t give a monkey’s whether UK public-spending is 29% or 45% of GDP – or 25% or 50% for that matter.

So Boles would be wise to reflect on the last question asked this morning, by Gavin Kelly, the RF CEO and Chair of the meeting. Gavin reckoned that the £8.5bn could be saved by requiring over 65s to pay NI (which all agree should be consolidated with income tax – it would be a bit illogical to pay insurance for when you can’t work when you’re over retirement age!) and (probably the biggie) reduce tax relief on pension contributions to basic rate tax only.

I suspect there are other tax allowances that really apply only to the better off that could be looked at – some of those for buy-to-let landlords look rather generous to me, and do we really need to allow new savings to be added to ISA tax shelters every year? Are we really serious about reducing the deficit?

It would seem to be less painful to reduce tax allowances than cut public spending. Consideration should at least be given to tax measures that don’t commit the political cardinal sin of raising headline rates of tax. Come on guys, even Brown was bold enough to raise the NI rate!

Let’s hope ideology doesn’t trump pragmatism in the Coalition’s forthcoming Spending Review. Perhaps they should start by renaming it a Budget (or even Deficit Reduction) Review. Or simply reclassify tax allowances as “spending”!

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