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.

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.

May 13, 2012

Gifts to Greece

My first thought this morning was to write about the so-called UK drought again. Maybe I’ll post something on that later.

Then I had a strong urge to comment on the absurdly excessive punishment of Lewis Hamilton (a 5 place penalty or inadmission of his final run – moreorless equivalent punishments – would have been appropriate) after an error by his team in qualifying for today’s Spanish GP. I’d hardly call myself an expert on the sport, but a previous foray into F1 commentary attracted a good deal of attention.

Instead I’m going to channel my annoyance at the spoiling of what might have vaguely resembled a sporting event in Barcelona towards the Greeks.

All I want to convey is one simple point, that the Greek people have benefited hugely from the international loans on which they have already partially defaulted and look increasingly like failing to repay in their entirety.

We haven’t invented this thing we call money just for fun. Money allows resources to be allocated. If you borrow it, spend it and fail to repay the loan, you have acquired or consumed resources that could have been used by someone else. Take the Athens metro railway and all the other billions worth of infrastructure to support the 2004 Olympic Games. How was that funded? I’ll hazard a guess. Borrowed money, at least in part. And what will happen to all that capital investment when Greece defaults? It’ll still be there. These assets will remain in existence indefinitely for the benefit of the Greek people. To the extent they haven’t been paid for, they’ve effectively been stolen from the rest of the world.

Some loans may be riskier than others, because that’s how the world is, but, unlike equity investments, loans are designed to be repaid. Financial disruption – on a global scale over the last 5 years – arises when debts are not repaid. So, because of the knock-on effects, Greece’s default is worse than theft! The entire EU has been plunged into recession in large part because of the need for the financial system to prepare for possible Greek default. Instead of using capital to support new lending, banks have been writing down Greek (and other) debt and taking actual losses.

Obviously we’re just reaping what was sown when Greece and other European sovereigns borrowed unsustainably. The question is how to prevent repeats of this cycle of behaviour?

Let’s mull over that question for a minute. What is the popular conception of what’s going on?

I think it was Arthur Smith I heard on the radio yesterday saying the Greeks should be let off their debts because “it’s not the fault” of those protesting. In what sense is that, Arthur? Are you perhaps saying the average Greek took no executive decisions regarding the nation’s finances? Clearly true. But isn’t a large part of the problem that they haven’t paid and continue not to pay their taxes? What do you think is fairer, that every Greek homeowner should pay a special tax (they’re refusing) or that you and I should find the money?

And isn’t a large part of the problem the Greek public-sector? What do you think is fairer, that Greek workers should take whatever pay cuts it takes to balance the books (as has happened elsewhere in Europe, such as in Estonia – now growing again – Latvia and Lithuania) or that you and I should find the money?

Many non-wealthy Greeks must also be culpable of wilfully participating in a cash economy, benefiting from lower prices for services whilst complicit in tax avoidance. What do you think is fairer, that the Greeks start paying taxes commensurate with their public spending like people in most other countries, or that you and I should find the money?

But the really interesting point is that Greece is a democracy. They’ve chosen their own government since the ousting of the colonels in the 1970s. Collectively, then, they’ve repeatedly elected politicians, at least some of which have overspent, undertaxed and cooked the books, or appointed officials to do so on their behalf. Clearly, collectively, the Greeks have benefited from this behaviour. I’m intrigued, Arthur, whether you’re suggesting that, collectively, the Greek people are also not responsible for the situation they find themselves in.

That’s probably enough. After all, Arthur is a national treasure, practically the new Queen Mother, and perhaps a little fragile. Maybe he just didn’t think. Maybe, like the QM, he inhabits a world where decisions are made by waving a magic wand. Maybe, like the QM, he lives in a world where one need take no responsibility for one’s finances.

I also caught a snippet this morning of someone on the Andrew Marr Show invoking the precedent of Argentina. That great and honourable country, that upstanding, exemplary member of the international community most recently defaulted on their debts about a decade ago. And it’s been great for their economy! Who’d have thought it? It’d be great for my personal finances if I went out and bought a house, a car, new furnishings and white goods, new shoes, clothes and so on and then didn’t bother paying for them. I’m sure I’d feel pretty well off for a few years too.

Let’s pick on someone else. Arianna Huffington writes in the NYT:

“Yes, the Greeks acted irresponsibly before the economic collapse — the same way my father had acted irresponsibly in his private and professional life. But that is not reason to punish the children, to destroy their future as part of a remedy for a past for which they bear no responsibility.”

What Arianna is saying – for some reason “bleeding heart liberal” is the outmoded phrase that comes to mind – is a little more sophisticated than Arthur Smith’s indignant genialism. We have to draw a line, she says, to protect the innocent. Though, I can’t help pointing out yet again, these “innocent” are nevertheless beneficiaries of the misappropriated funds spent in Greece over the last decade or so. Perhaps they’ll remember that every time they hop on Athens’ shiny new metro trains.

The fear gripping financial markets – and contributing to the unnecessary economic hardship and suffering of innocent little children currently taking place in, say, the UK – is that other countries will follow Arianna’s line of reasoning too. Why shouldn’t Ireland, Spain, Portugal and even Italy say “don’t punish the children”? Having elected profligate, irresponsible governments that have given them what they wanted – low taxes, high spending – why won’t they now elect governments to satisfy their new desire for debt writeoff with some kind of moral justification (right wing nationalist or left wing anti-capitalist – take your pick, or, hey, what the hell, you can even pick both!).

If we want financial stability – quite possibly a good thing, I suggest, in light of the 1930s, just as a for example – then debts have to be repaid. And sovereign debts would be a good start.

So how can the international community protect itself against freeloaders? Against those countries who run up debts, fail to collect enough tax and then, in the words of the song about the girl next door and the bathroom floor, plead “It Wasn’t Me”?

Here’s my suggestion. Many of the countries that default are serial offenders. There’s something deeply ingrained, in their DNA if you like, that leads them to spend too much and collect too little tax. So cut them off from international finance for long enough for them to lose thir habits. This would be simple to implement. The financial services industry is highly regulated (all that effort’s been really effective, hasn’t it?). Regulators in responsible countries (say the UK, the US, the EU apart from Greece) could simply demand that no financial institution or its subsidiaries (maybe even no company) lends at all to a government that has defaulted on sovereign debt over the last 50 years – or maybe even more. Or, crucially, to any institution in that country dependent on its government, such as a bank or a company.

Since holding the currency of the defaulted country would constitute lending, all investment in defaulted countries would have to be funded locally in their own currency. Imports would require foreign currency that would have to be acquired beforehand by local institutions or individuals, i.e. by selling goods and services as exports (or small amounts of currency to tourists and other visitors). No publicly funded export credit guarantees would be available to UK companies, for example. In effect, such countries would be forbidden from running a trade deficit.

Such a measure would do two things. It would financially quarantine serial defaulters for a time longer than short-term market memory currently manages (defaulters tend to return to the international markets within a decade). And it would give non-defaulters pause for thought.

October 27, 2010

The Benefits of Being Ugly

Filed under: Economics, Housing market, Markets, Minimum wage, Public spending, Regulation — Tim Joslin @ 8:19 pm

I’ve just watched today’s Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) on iPlayer (warning: programme will probably not remain permanently available), because it’s simply not clear what aspects of the Coalition government’s benefits cuts programme Labour opposes.  It was ugly: the problem is Ed Miliband didn’t stick to the point.  There is a chink in Cameron’s armour, but Miliband missed it.  If he’d thought through his position rather better you feel he could have skewered the bastard.

The point is, if you watch the Guardian’s PMQ clip, Miliband appears to be latching onto the vindictive proposal to reduce Housing Benefit (HB) by 10% after someone has been on Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) for a year.

I’d thought Chris Bryant had been off-message when he took on Clegg over the £400/week limit on HB, which could force people out of central London.  Clegg did that old trick of ignoring what was asked and taking offence at the manner, suggesting Bryant had dissed those “ethnically cleansed” around the world.  Bryant said “sociologically cleansed” so Clegg was just being a prick.  I don’t like to use bad language on this blog, but I’m making an exception for the Deputy PM.  Anyway, back to the story.  Unfortunately, in PMQs, Miliband let Cameron talk about the £400/pw limit rather than the 10% reduction.

Labour is defending the indefensible in opposing the £400 limit and should be supporting it.  The 10% cut is a different matter altogether.

It’s depressing to see Labour in complete disarray in the face of the Tory onslaught.  All we’re seeing is uncoordinated rearguard action.  Ed won’t last long if they carry on like this.

The point is there are different motivations for different aspects of the welfare reforms.  Some measures are to restore fairness and others to reduce the overall cost.  There is an element of financial sleight of hand.  But there is also an attempt to punish the unemployed, and that is simply out of order.  Ugly, Cameron, ugly.  With around 1.5m on JSA already and with 500,000 civil service job losses to come, as well as transfers from disability and incapacity benefit, there are bound to be some people who don’t find work within a year.  Sure, some of these will be people who tried less hard than those who found work, but the point is not everyone will find work, even if all applied the highest standard of diligence in looking for a job.

So what are the main changes and their rationale?  Which should Labour oppose?

1. Reassessing disability and incapacity benefit claims

Labour was doing this anyway.  The Tories are not outflanking Labour though are giving the impression of doing so.  To be honest, both parties are cynically preserving votes, since there’s actually no reason why you need more money if you’re disabled.  The benefit should be the same as JSA, unless extra funds are needed to overcome specific disabilities. I caught a Radio 5 phone-in this morning and none of the callers fell into such a category.  RSI (“carpal tunnel syndrome”), chronic migraines and depression are unpleasant conditions, but do not in themselves result in expense.  The point is that paying more money gives people an incentive to label themselves as ill, which is in neither the public nor, arguably, their own interest.

2. Limits on the maximum HB that can be claimed

This depends on the number of bedrooms you’re assessed as needing.  The maximum (for 4 bedrooms) is £400/pw (the other limits are “£340 for a three-bedroom property, £290 for two bedrooms and £250 for a one-bedroom property”).  This is more than many working people can afford, so there is overwhelming public support for the limit for the unemployed.  And the Tories are milking it.

But employed people can also claim HB.  The answer to the case of the caretaker cited by Polly Toynbee is to demand a higher minimum wage in London (see my previous post), not to oppose the HB limits.  As I said, Labour is in disarray.

There are serious questions to be asked, too. And Labour isn’t asking them.  People on high rents are going to run out of money very quickly.  Is the government saying, for example, that if someone is made unemployed and they happen to be renting somewhere for more than the limit they’re entitled to – not difficult in London – or have two bedrooms when they’re only entitled to one, that they have to move immediately, or at least before any savings or redundancy payment run out?  The additional disruption is hardly conducive to rapidly finding new employment, is it?

3. An increase in rents for new social housing tenancies to 80% of the market rate.

Judging by Toynbee’s comments, Labour seems to have missed the point of this.  The idea is to raise money for new-build social housing.  The idea is that providers will be able to borrow against the increased revenue stream.  (Most of the rent at present goes on repairs).  HB will have to be higher to fund the higher rents, so all that’s really happening is the cost of new social housing is being amortised – rather like the much-derided Public Finance Initiative (PFI) Labour used to get hospitals built.

4. Paying HB only for rents up to the 30th percentile for the area rather than the median.

It’s crazy that it was the median in the first place.  Over time, this must simply push up rents in general, since with HB-funded demand, any properties offered up to the median price will be let quickly (so no incentive to mark them down), whereas those marketed at an above-median price might find a tenant before they have to be marked down.  The median will steadily increase even if supply and demand are balanced.  It’s possible even the 30th percentile might not be enough to prevent this effect (since properties private tenants would pay less than the 30th percentile rate for will let to HB tenants at the 30th percentile rate).

5. And then there’s the 10% HB punishment if you don’t find a job in a year.

This makes absolutely no sense to me.  HB is supposed to be a payment in kind.  It’s to pay the rent.  If it’s reduced, then something’s got to give.  And apparently there’s more: I start to appreciate Polly Toynbee’s indignation:

“But that’s not all. The sum paid towards the rent will fall every year, in perpetuity: it will no longer rise as average local rents rise but will be pegged to the consumer price index. If that had happened in the last decade most people would have been priced out: rents rose by 70%, but the CPI only rose 20%.

Now add in something more sinister. Council tax benefit, worth an average £16 a week, is to be cut by 10% and then handed over to each local authority to decide how much benefit to offer: if some councils want to push poor people out, they can pay virtually nothing to their residents.”

This makes no sense.  I can understand the idea that you’ve got no job, the state covers your main outgoings (rent, Council Tax) and gives you £65/wk to manage the rest on.  But £65 seems pretty much a bare minimum for food, heating, clothing and so on.  Playing games beyond this point is simply vindictive.  To see someone of Cameron’s privileged background doing so is, frankly, a rather disgusting sight.

So, Ed, you need to inject some clarity into Labour’s position.   You’re going to have to give up some ground.  Most of what the Coalition is doing makes sense.  But punishing the unemployed doesn’t.

And come up with some alternatives.  A higher minimum wage to increase the incentive to work.  And a higher minimum wage in expensive areas, such as central London than elsewhere.

Most of all, please, please read the blogs and stop defending Housing Benefit of more than £400/wk!

Housing Horror

Over the last few decades, here in the UK, we’ve become very good at pointing to apparent failure.  Often despite considerable objective evidence to the contrary.  Apparently we’re no longer any good at making things (compared to Germany and China, maybe, but not to most other countries), our armed forces are puny (compared to the US, maybe…), our energy supply is insecure, our public services are falling apart, the English Premier League is in a mess…  Such angst is spreading elsewhere in the West, but somehow you rarely hear fundamental criticism of our political and economic system.  You’d think the political process was merely flawed, a little unfair in places, perhaps, a little too tolerant of peccadilloes by the powerful, but basically sound, and very difficult to improve.  Despite considerable objective evidence to the contrary.

We’re just now quite rightly much vexed over the issue of housing (warning, link is to page of all 865 comments, and counting).

The issue, in a nutshell, is the extent to which the state should pay to provide some people with a standard of housing higher than they can afford on the open market.  The 1997-2010 Labour government (supported by at least the non-Tory controlled local councils, who have executive powers in area of housing), was quite enthusiastic about doing so, though in the main merely continued existing policies.  As time has gone on, though, the provision of housing to some by the state has been a factor in driving those not eligible for, or simply not claiming, state support, into less desirable – smaller, and often, crucially, less conveniently located – accommodation.  It should be noted that Labour’s attempts to increase the supply of housing over recent years has been effectively stymied by nimby campaigns, if not supported, then at least not effectively challenged by foot-dragging Liberal and Conservative local councils.  Despite guilt all round, the new Coalition government has decided to address the problem, in part, I suggest, as part of their strategy of blaming everything on Labour.   And in that regard, housing is pretty much an open goal.

As the debate continues, we see not one but two failings of our political system in stark relief.

The first failing is a confusion: are we making policy on the basis of reason or emotion?  Let’s take people who aren’t working for whatever reason (unemployed, incapacitated or retired).  Now, I’m not even going to argue this on the basis of rights.  It simply makes no sense, as hundreds of bloggers have pointed out (to massive approval, judging by “Recommendation” statistics), for workers to commute in every day from the outskirts of conurbations such as London, whilst people who don’t actually need to live there are paid to do so by the state.  Why, oh, why does Labour defend the indefensible? (Link to where Polly Toynbee explains the Coalition’s inhuman proposals – remember we’re essentially taking about a zero-sum game, here: what we give to one household, we deny to another).

But – there’s always a “but” – there are “priority cases” as a Councillor Timothy Coleridge (Tory, Kensington and Chelsea) explained on Radio 4 this morning trying to “soften” the policy.  There’ll be a “transition fund”, we were told.  He seemed to be particularly sympathetic to the elderly.  So it seems we’re going to make value judgements.

It might be worth digressing at this point to note that gerrymandering is a factor, because of first-past-the-post local elections.  Politicians want to keep their voters in their constituency and move the opposition’s out!  I suspect the Tories see the elderly vote as key to their next few terms in office, so I was immediately suspicious of Councillor Coleridge.  Any “prioritisation” must surely be done according to an objective, nationally applicable set of criteria.  Trouble is, value judgements are why we’re here in the first place.

If the policy is to minimise the fiscal cost of housing benefit, and optimise the use of housing, then that’s what we must do.

Here’s a case of the same sort of thinking, from a letter to the Guardian, by an Ann Tobin:

“The house was lovely, built to Labour’s postwar housing standards (later abandoned by the Tories). Us kids grew up and moved on and my parents stayed there until my mother died in 1998, 50 years after they had moved in. My father died three years before her. Yes, the house was too big for her, but she liked to invite her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to stay.” [my stress]

This partly explains how we’ve reached the present situation.  This identifiable individual (Ann Tobin’s mum) “liked” her big house, provided by the state.  Meanwhile, there is a waiting list of millions of families for such houses.  Maybe, because Ann Tobin’s mum was allowed to keep a house she liked, a family with a couple of school-age kids spent years moving about between emergency B&B accommodation to temporary lodgings.  Maybe that family would have “liked” a house of their own.  Because Ann Tobin’s mother has been allowed to stay in a family house, another family that can’t be precisely identified is living in poor or insecure accommodation.  This is crazy.  Housing supply is limited (though could be improved).  Why is it so difficult for people to understand that because of that limitation one decision impacts on others?  In areas with a limited supply of housing, its allocation is a zero-sum game.  You can’t give some people a place they’d “like” without denying others the same thing.

To my mind what we’re witnessing is the complete failure of post-war housing policy in the UK.  Council housing, for example, makes no sense.  It locks in housing allocation at one moment in time, making no allowance for the changing world we live in. Or the changing size of individual families for that matter.

This brings me on to the second failing of the political system.  Politicians see direct action by the state as the only way to achieve anything.  So we’re told we have to build more social housing.  Wrong.  We simply have to build more housing, period.  100,000 private homes will house 100,000 households just as well as 100,000 social homes will.  100,000 fewer households will be waiting for housing in either case.

And in actual fact, over the last decade or so, demands for social housing have actually reduced the total provision of housing.  Why?  Because the main way social housing has been provided has been through Section 106 agreements with housing developers.  In this daft system, housing developers have been given planning permission in return for including schools, hospitals or social housing in their schemes.  And you thought schools, hospitals and social housing all came out of the health, education and housing budgets?  This tax on developers, or first-time buyers, however you want to look at it, has the effect of reducing housing provision.  At a given house-price level, building houses is less profitable than otherwise would be the case, so fewer invest in that activity than in other opportunities.  Fewer houses get built, house prices rise, and more prospective purchasers find themselves on social-housing waiting lists.  Section 106 agreements to provide more social housing because it’ll be needed are, in aggregate, self-fulfilling!

I can’t even bring myself to discuss how shared equity schemes and other devices to subsidise house purchases simply push up the general price in the market.

The solution seems to me blindingly obvious, so I’m going to cut to the chase (a phrase, incidentally, that grated when used by Bob Hoskins in Made in Dagenham, since it wasn’t in general usage in 1968 when the film was set – I remember first hearing it in 1994).

We’ve simply got to manage the relationship between wages, at the low end, and house prices so that working people can afford to house themselves and their families.  The implication is that there needs to be a higher minimum wage in areas where housing is expensive.  It is simple exploitation to be paying the national minimum wage in central London, because there are only a limited number of possible outcomes.  Either workers commute in which case they spend more time and money than if they were working near their home; or living-standards drop and people end up sleeping in shifts; or benefits are necessary to top-up earnings, subsidising employers and consumers in expensive areas.  Ideally, employers would have to pay more in expensive areas, but the labour market is, has been for some time, and will be for some time, a buyers’ market.  Indeed it is government policy to force people to take any job they can get.

What a mess! State provision of housing has led to a situation where the minimum wage is nowhere near a “living” wage.  Perhaps that’s a bit strong: rather, state provision of housing and other benefits has provided a safety-valve so that pay has been allowed to become gradually lower and lower relative to socially accepted minimum living standards.

Maybe some blame should be apportioned, in order to unravel some of the mystery how we arrived in this absurd situation.

First, there are those, almost all in the Labour Party, but not all of the Labour Party, who believe it is right that the state provides housing and benefits on the basis of need.  “Capitalism” is so “unfair” that the state must step in.  As I’ve mentioned this policy has failed.

Second, there are those in all three parties who take a position I would characterise as “hand-wringing liberals” who make no attempt to analyse the problem and produce a complete policy.  They just want to address the problems of those with whom they empathise.  The trouble is, as I’ve also already said, with limited supply, allocating a house to Mr Jones simply moves Mr Smith onto the waiting list.  As a rationalist this is the position I detest most of all.  Government has a duty to find as solution for everyone, not self-righteously apply sticking-plaster where they most easily can.

Third, there are those in all three parties – since many of the individuals concerned have a vested interest in the form of their own properties – who explicitly or tacitly believe the natural order of things is for people like themselves to own their own homes, ever-rising in value, and that there must necessarily be “the poor” who don’t deserve or are incapable of having the same thing.  Explicitly in the case of some Conservatives… heeeere’s Boris!:

“Better a stagnant housing market, [those arguing for an end to housing speculation] will say, than another great boom and another great bust. Which is all very well, in theory.

In practice, it looks as if flattening off the housing market is both risky in the short term, and unachievable in the long term. The sad truth is that it is still psychologically essential to the British middle classes to have a sense that our principal asset is gently appreciating in value, or at least that it will over the long term.”

Stark-staring bonkers, of course.

Houses simply can’t appreciate in value indefinitely compared to other goods and services.  The world doesn’t work like that.  Eventually house price rises will become self-defeating: even if they don’t stimulate more new-build supply (because of self-interested nimbyism); or inflation, causing interest-rate and hence mortgage increases; they’ll eventually act as such a drag on the economy that activity moves elsewhere – abroad, most likely – and housing demand and prices fall.

Those who buy into the view that the increasing value of their home represents a permanent increase in wealth support the ongoing British class division implicitly.  What they refuse to countenance is entirely feasible: it is possible for everyone in work to own their own home, or rent at a market rate, if they prefer the flexibility they gain that way.

So the three stooges are “Old Labour” socialists, who don’t believe markets can ever be fair; bleeding heart, sawdust-headed “Liberals”; and divided nation, blue-blood-is-just-better “Conservatives”.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Instead of accepting capitalism as it is (“Conservative”), or rejecting it (“Old Labour”), or ooh, poor little kitten! (“Liberal”), we can make capitalism fairer.  A much higher minimum wage, relative to local house prices, would solve many of the problems that are causing such angst.

 

January 20, 2010

Parking Paralysis (and Housing Horror)

As we head towards what promises to be a fascinating General Election, the absurd first past the post system has ensured the parties are united in their zeal to pander to Middle England. And Middle England, it seems, is consumed with localist fervour.

What is localism, anyway?

The politicians would have you believe that the first stop on the road to true democracy is to “empower communities”. That is, they assert the moral right of the current residents of a given area to make a broad range of decisions without reference to the general interest.

The idea that the primary unit of a complex modern society is a “community” of people living near one another is, of course, absurd. In fact, our personal networks – including families – are, in general, becoming more and more geographically dispersed. We have little in common with most of our neighbours, other than the area where we live.

Harking back to an outmoded idea of the community masks what is really going on. What’s really happening is that the political process is becoming more and more skewed towards vested interests and against the general interest.

Take housing, for example. This morning I heard the Housing Minister, John Healey, on the Today programme, promising to clamp down on “garden-grabbing”.

Let’s put to one side the fact that John Prescott was right: we need to increase housing density. Labour has caved in on this principle as the Tories have gradually captured local government. But below a certain threshold of population density local shops are not economically viable; nor is public transport. Pretty soon everyone’s driving to Tesco’s. And the same nauseating nimbys who prevented “overdevelopment” are complaining about the loss of local shops and whinging about “Tesco towns”.

I consider it absolutely ridiculous that I’m in London Transport Zone 3, but 10 minutes walk from a pint of milk and a newspaper. If there were a few more flats nearby and perhaps fewer large private gardens, maybe there’d be enough people in walking distance to sustain a local corner-shop. If it could get planning permission.

Let’s ignore the “community” narrative and instead consider what’s really happening with the “clamp-down” on “garden-grabbing”. What John Healey is really doing is strengthening the rights of neighbours over the owners or prospective owners of property – despite the fact that the size of gardens has marginal impact on neighbouring properties, or, for that matter, their value. If they reduce the size of a garden, those bogey-men, the developers, are not simply being bloody-minded. The market is telling them that the land has less value as a garden than as building. If the opposite was the case they’d increase the size of gardens.

Obviously, the reason why “building” is more highly valued than “garden” could have something to do with the lack of available housing in many parts of the UK. But clearly our leaders don’t see this isn’t a good enough basis for a decision. The visceral feelings of neighbours are obviously far more important.

A few weeks ago Secretary of State John Denham rejected plans for a development near Ealing Broadway station. He acknowledged that the proposed “scheme would comply with some specific development plan policies relating to the regeneration of Ealing Town Centre and would bring many benefits to the area”, including 567 homes, but judged that all this value was outweighed by his subjective judgement (in response to local concerns) that “the bulk, massing and certain aspects of the design of the scheme would be inappropriate in its surroundings. It would fail to preserve or enhance the character and appearance of the Town Centre conservation area and the setting of the Haven Green conservation area, as well as harming the setting of the Grade II* listed Church of Christ the Saviour.” One person’s fears about their “visual amenity” (an irritating phrase repeated ad nauseam in planning documents) trumps another’s need for somewhere to live.

Look, Haven Green is a mess. It’s simply not that pleasant a place. It could conceivably be improved by removing the buses which stop and indeed park (for driver breaks, I gather) on the diagonal road across the Green. A recent Ealing Council document (pdf) noted that: “A major consideration, as part of both the Crossrail and Arcadia redevelopment proposals, is the provision of better interchange with local bus services.” But Arcadia is not going ahead, and, if I understand the document correctly, Crossrail has no budget to pay for a proper bus station.

The planning process is bad enough, but nowhere is localism more evident than in the battle for control of scarce road space.

Ealing Council, to my horror, is also consulting on a dreaded CPZ (controlled parking zone), which would affect me.

OK, the proliferation of CPZs can be largely explained in terms of local government bureaucrat empire-building, but there is clearly at least enough tacit public approval to allow them to get away with it. Let’s therefore consider the CPZ in my novel terms of the “local” (or “vested”) interest and the “general” interest.

Before a CPZ is implemented in a given street, everyone has an equal right to park there. After its implementation, car-owning residents generally have absolute priority. In fact, often the schemes are implemented with the shocking inefficiency that non-residents can’t even use the space when it is unoccupied! (Schemes variously allocate a few metered bays or, better, allow metered parking albeit for limited periods and at limited times in residents’ bays).

So, in approving a CPZ, residents in effect extend their property a couple of metres into the road in one fell swoop!

Do they pay a fair price for this asset, though?

Of course they don’t.

Permits for residents’ parking on public roads are often less than £100 per year, and rarely more than a few £100s. The market value of such parking – determined by the rates in the few metered bays typically provided or in nearby car-parks – is usually at least several pounds a day – £1000s, not £100s a year.

It’s not just outsiders who, in effect, subsidise permit-holders. Residents who don’t run cars are massively inconvenienced, as is everyone when they have visitors, or use local services. Estate agents, for example, have problems parking when they quite legitimately want to show properties to prospective purchasers or tenants.

What CPZ schemes fail to take account of is that residents’ cars are part of the problem, and not the only injured party. Personally, it seems to me that there would be more social utility in reserving parking places for estate agents than for residents who just want to leave half a tonne of steel and moulded plastic outside their house for 6 1/2 days a week.

If we’re going to have CPZ schemes, then, let’s charge a market rate for the parking space – upwards of £1000 a year (and allow the option of paying a daily rate for those residents who park their car elsewhere most of the time). Then we’d reduce car ownership, spaces could be allocated to car clubs and for visitors and our parking problems would be much reduced.

What Ealing really wants, though, is not an ever-growing CPZ area. What’s happened is they’ve tried to solve the problem of commuters parking near Ealing Broadway and West Ealing stations. Entirely predictably, the small CPZs implemented have just moved the problem. Now they’re consulting on more CPZs. Nice work, if you’re in the CPZ implementation business.

Is there another policy that might make more sense than the inefficiency of selling the public parking space asset at a discounted rate to residents who think they own “their” road? It is entirely legitimate to discourage car rather than bus or shoe-leather use by commuters. Why not, therefore, consider a congestion-charge scheme for non-residents coming into the centre of Ealing? One might hope that some of the London congestion-charge infrastructure could be fairly cheaply deployed just in the centre of Ealing. I’d suggest vehicles entering and leaving are monitored and the software programmed to charge only for those non-residents who stay in the area more than, say, an hour, since the objective in this case is not to penalise through-traffic but relieve pressure on on-street parking.

Perhaps it will take PR to slow the tide of localism. Certainly though, until the political process weighs the general interest more carefully against vested interests, our society will continue to be held back by dysfunctional and misguided decisions.

December 8, 2009

Hansen vs. Krugman: Second (Third and Fourth Order Effect)s Out!

Yesterday’s NYT includes a right royal spat. Well, online it does, at least. In a piece titled Cap and Fade, James Hansen argues that carbon taxes would be more effective than cap and trade. Paul Krugman responds under the heading Unhelpful Hansen, by first telling Hansen to stay off his turf. Climate scientists shouldn’t dabble in economics, apparently. Tosh. Ideas have to stand on their own merits.

Having highlighted the intellectual ring-fencing which is at the root of many of the world’s problems, Krugman proceeds to un-blot his copy-book. He points out very convincingly that, from an individual consumer’s point of view, it matters not a jot whether gasoline is more expensive because of a tax or because of a cap and trade mechanism.

Krugman is right as far as it goes. But both Hansen and Krugman fail to mention the second, third and fourth order effects of pricing carbon emissions. And it is the second, third and fourth order effects that will determine the effectiveness of policy.

Let’s start at the end, because it’s more fun. The fourth order effect of pricing carbon will simply be a redistribution of spending power in the economy. I’m sure I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: money is just a means of distributing resources. The economic system will adjust so that the available resources are used.

Perhaps I should try to explain a little further. Money circulates. There is not a fixed quantity. Let’s imagine we put an astronomical tax on carbon. The money raised by that tax must be spent. Let’s say we decide to spend it on more doctors. Suddenly there will be more doctors to fly off to junkets round the world. Or maybe they’ll spend their money on art (or more expensive houses, or televised sport…). In which case the previous owners of the art (or houses, or sportsmen, their agents and other freeloaders) will be able to afford to fly more…

But before we even get to this unhappy state, we should consider, first, a second order effect of pricing carbon. Pricing carbon will tend to reduce the price of fossil-fuels. All that might happen is that the price of petrol at the pump remains the same, but less of the motorist’s money ends up going to the oil-producer and more goes to the government. Maybe a good thing in itself, but we’re trying to stop global warming here, not change the shares of unearned spoils divided with the Saudis. Sure, depressing the global oil price might have the desirable third order effect of reducing investment in the most expensive fossil-fuels for a while (until the lack of supply pushes prices up again), but we need to reduce consumption of fossil-fuels that cost virtually nothing: coal, in particular.

And unfortunately the second order effect of carbon pricing on the oil price is dwarfed by the third order effects of another second order effect. The second order effect (I’m trying to be rigorous, here!) is that taxes raise money. So does carbon trading. We need to consider the effects of how that money is spent.

Hansen argues that the money should be distributed to the population. This will, at least in the short-term, increase equality. And, unfortunately, when you’re trying to reduce consumption of mass-market products, equality is not your friend. Money will be taken from those whose consumption is not constrained by their financial situation and given to those who would like to spend more. Likely on heating, driving, flying and so on. Oh dear!

But there are problems with carbon trading, too. The precise outcome will depend on how carbon permits are distributed. If they’re given away to power companies, then any excess permits will accrue to these companies’ shareholders in the first instance. (Over time, these profits will encourage new market entrants, although this may not happen if only incumbents are able to access the permits). If permits are auctioned, though, then we reach a situation similar to the carbon tax. The outcome depends on what the government does with the revenue. Simply distributing it to the population would fall foul of the same equality problem as for the tax. Direct or indirect subsidies for renewable energy production would clearly be by far the best policy choice, in the hope that, once renewable energy has a huge cost advantage over fossil-fuels, everyone will switch to clean energy. Maybe.

In perverse support for Krugman’s argument that taxes and cap and trade are equivalent, government could spend tax revenues in the same way as those from auctioning permits. Very similar to Hansen’s position is the idea of tradeable personal carbon allowances. These would have the effect of transferring wealth from the rich to the poor. And remember, equality is not our friend…

Let’s make some tentative conclusions and observations:
1. The indirect ramifications of carbon pricing policies are more important than their immediate effects.
2. Carbon trading is philosophically preferable to carbon taxes, because it at least imposes a limit on total consumption. The problems arise from leakage (the concept is explained in a previous post). Unfortunately, these are very big problems – probably deserving a post of their own.
3. If there is a limit on the carbon price in a carbon trading system, then it becomes almost equivalent to a tax. However carbon is priced, governments must be prepared to push the price up indefinitely. Otherwise, I suggest, the economy will simply adjust to the price.
4. Carbon trading is a superior policy if you’re really serious about reducing fossil-fuel emissions, because government doesn’t have to set a tax at an eye-watering level. It can simply say: “this is all the fossil-fuel we can afford to burn, it’s supply and demand in the market-place which has pushed the price up.”

Unfortunately, I don’t see too many governments around the world that are about to bite the bullet and set an effective carbon price.

November 20, 2009

China’s Energy Profligacy

Filed under: Economics, Energy, Energy policy, Global warming, Markets, Regulation — Tim Joslin @ 6:31 pm

It’s incredible what you see if you keep your eyes open. This AP story about Chinese electricity prices popped up on my screen today, courtesy of Yahoo!

The article begins:

“China raised electricity rates for businesses and industries Friday, part of a long-term effort to adjust prices to reflect costs and promote energy saving as the country struggles to meet soaring demand.

The 5.7 percent increase was the first rate-hike since July 2008, when electricity tariffs for nonresidential use rose 5 percent. Residential electricity rates have remained stable since a 1 percent hike in July 2006, but a residential rate increase is planned for early next year, China’s main planning agency said in a notice late Thursday.”

So far, so good.

The story even goes on to report that:

“Rates for residential users will be adjusted to charge more to heavy users, while keeping the costs for those who consume little more or less unchanged.”

Amazing what an all-powerful state can do! And sensible, I suppose, if you’re into social engineering.

But there’s a kicker:

“Friday’s hike raises the tariff for industrial and commercial customers to 0.522 yuan (3.4 U.S. cents) per kilowatt hour. That compares with rates averaging about 10.4 U.S. cents in the U.S. and 12 U.S. cents in Japan, according to figures from the U.S. International Energy Agency.”

So let’s see… An American company could have its widgets manufactured in China and exported to the US (or anywhere else for that matter) and, denominating everything in dollars, save nearly 70% (67.3% to be more precise) on electricity costs alone!

AP goes on to report that:

“China’s power consumption [presumably “power” is synonymous with “electricity” here] rose nearly 16 percent in October from a year earlier, to 313.4 billion kilowatt hours, the fifth straight month of increases as the economy recovered from a slowdown early this year.

Earlier this week, Shanghai and other major cities reported brief shortages of power and natural gas due to surging demand due to dropping temperatures.

The government is on a long-term campaign to reduce energy waste, especially by industries. While cost-conscious families tend to skimp on electricity use, overall China uses four times as much energy as the U.S. per dollar of economic output, and more than 11 times that used in Japan.” [my stress]

I included the first couple of paragraphs for other interest – 313.4 billion kilowatt hours (why, oh why can’t journos use units in a sensible fashion? – what next? “million MWh”?) is 313.4TWh, i.e. about 10 times the UK’s electricity consumption (around 400TWh/yr, according to the source I used in a previous post).

I wrote yesterday that:

“…let’s suppose France succeeds in reducing oil consumption. What else might they buy? If they buy manufactures, the ’embedded carbon’ in each $1bn worth will very likely be higher than in $1bn worth of oil! Why? Because manufactures require energy which will likely come from cheap indigenous (or Australian) coal, in China, say. Oil has a scarcity value because it is so useful. $1bn worth of oil might therefore contain less carbon than $1bn worth of manufactures!”

I remember thinking I should tone this down. I can’t remember exactly what I changed – I guess I put the “might” in the last sentence – but I obviously missed a “very likely”. Now, though, I’m beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t have been more committal!

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