Thursday, 28 March 2013

I'm standing again

I've decided to have another go at being a County Council candidate which means I won't be posting here any more, or at least until after the election on 2 May 2013.

I'm writing a diary of my campaign on www.belfordandcoastaltory.com.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Forward?

Now that Obama has won he has to get a grip on the US fiscal position. Unfortunately early comments from prominent Republicans suggest that they have not learned the lessons of yesterday and they will continue to obstruct. The lessons (some of them at least: I wouldn't pretend to know them all):
- voters don't like extremism. They admire conviction but not at the expense of working with others - just as people have to do every day in their lives.
- the world changes as does the electorate: it appears that the Republicans have forgotten that not all US voters are white middle class and retired.

Those are important lessons for the Tories here in Britain as well.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Today's the day

There’s two surprising things about the US election. One is just how much the two candidates (and their supporters have spent) on largely negative advertising. The second is how close it is. It’s not even clear that the result will be known straight away given the opportunity for legal challenges in swing states.

That is surprising given the euphoria that greeted Obama’s success just four years ago and the fact that he hasn’t done a bad job in almost impossible circumstances. He has acted with conviction on security matters, with common sense on foreign affairs and with some success in economic terms. This is despite inheriting a broken financialsystem and out of control wars.  He has faced a Republican party determined not to compromise on any economic issue – to an unprecedented extent - making the US deficit a real worry.
I suspect that neither candidate will act particularly differently on most issues so at one level, who wins doesn’t matter: economic growth will be slow but will happen and  although there’s a lot of intensity at the moment that will fade away for most people and life will get back to normal. But at another I quite strongly hope Obama wins.  I just don’t think that it would be fair for the Republicans, after four years of such bad behaviour, to succeed. And Romney’s behaviour on his “meet the allies” world tour hardly shows he is someone you’d want to do business with.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

The hunt for growth

The lack of growth in the UK economy is worrying for all sorts of reasons; it hurts at an individual level for those who cannot get work and it hurts at a macro level: the deficit is increased because tax revenues are less and welfare payments are more and potentially this harms our credit rating and therefore the value of sterling and the interest we have to pay to fund the deficit.

The trouble is that there is very little the Government can actually do to increase growth. In economic terms, I think it has done one big thing well: it has sent a message on getting public sector spending under control. It hasn’t quite achieved getting it under control but it’s made more progress than most previous governments. This has had a positive impact of keeping interest rates low; had the steps not been taken the negative impact on the economy would have been horrific. But the trouble is that it has reduced confidence, it has made people nervous and that makes consumers and companies unwilling to spend money or invest.

In fact things aren’t too bad; I was in S Devon last month. Most pubs and shops were advertising for staff. There were almost as many cranes and skips as London in London. If you talk to small business owners generally about how things are going, the answer is usually “OK”. Not great – but OK. Businesses have adapted. But if they can, they are hoarding cash, they are not taking risks, and they are not investing. And if don’t have cash but want to invest then credit has dried up largely because regulatory policy limits bank lending.

So what should the Government do? It should recognise it can’t do too much. It needs to get credit flowing by reducing some of the constraints on banks. It should introduce no-fault redundancies to help employment. It should sound more positive. It should ensure there’s no more quantitative easing. It should develop small scale infrastructure projects. But the implication that it sees a third runway at Heathrow as helping is worrying: that would be irrelevant to growth now. The reduction of planning constraints on residential development could help but also conflict with the localism agenda many of us thought was an important policy.
But serious growth will only come from improved confidence. That will take time and will only come from working through the debt problems in the UK and abroad – especially Europe. In the meantime the Government needs to keep its nerve and not seem panicked.

Why do people do silly things?

A few weeks ago there were two announcements which had big implications for the companies involved and in different ways for the UK economy.

One was about the West Coast rail franchise, taking it from Virgin trains and giving it to First Group.

The second was the proposed merger between BAe and EADS.

I heard both when I was listening to he radio. Both instinctively felt wrong; it was obvious they were silly ideas.

For the rail franchise, it was obvious (I speak with experience of the bungles with the East Coast main line franchise) that insufficient weight had been given to the experience of the current operator and too much weight had been given to future promises of a previously unreliable operator. I didn't know just how badly the process had been handled, or how quickly it would unravel, but it was obviously wrong. Why couldn't transport ministers see that? How did they let it happen? It's easy to blame the civil servants who clearly made serious mistakes possibly driven by the fact that Virgin trains had previously negotiated too good a deal. But ultimately the ministers decide. I suppose you get wrapped up in a bubble and there's a limit to how much you can contradict the advice of full time officials. But this was so obviously wrong they shoud not have accepted it. The fact they did means they should not be ministers now.

BAe, given a downturn in defence spending, needs to consider it's strategic direction. But the companyis fundamental to the UK defence structure and its major clients are in the US. Its also a big UK employer. It's surely obvious that a merger with a primarily competitor  over whom the French and German governments have significant influence is going to be very high risk, in the best case, with major implications for UK defence security and for UK jobs. This is one where the Government should simply have said "don't even think about it" when they were sounded out, as they must have been. Yet there's a major lobbying operation which appears to be having some success. If the Government is lucky shareholder pressures may put a stop to the deal. If they don't then the Government belatedly needs to stop it. If not they'll regret it even more than the rail franchise -although by the time the consequences arrive they'll probably be out of office.

But again: why is this not obvious?

Monday, 27 August 2012

Why can't techies leave things alone?

I've just come back to the blog to find Google (who own blogger) have changed layouts, styles, fonts, the dashboard and so on.

Why? It worked perfectly well before. Its not obviously better now - it's just different and therefore less convenient because I (and at some other time in the past) other users have to re-learn how to finesse it to produce a desired result.

This happens so often in technology: one reason I no longer bother with facebook (and linkedin) is because they kept changing it.
And yet ... all those people working on the changes are doing it because they think it will make the world a better place. A shame it usually doesn't.

2012

2012
Had I been organised I’d have posted my thoughts on what was
important for 2012 before the year was over half way through – in fact I’d have
done it at the start of the year. I did generate the thoughts, I just never
wrote them down. But better late than never:

At home, the economy is the most important thing: will there
be a double dip recession and if so will it be long standing, will inflation
start to reduce, and will public sector spending come under control? Much of
the outcome will be determined by what happens outside the UK:
- in Europe where uncertainty about the Euro and the public
sector deficits and the safety of banks in some European countries is
depressing confidence and economic activity;
- in the US, where a stand-off between Democrats and
Republicans over pretty much everything but especially how to deal with the
deficit, is again damaging confidence and therefore investment;
- in the Middle East, where continued instability is a
threat to the world economy (and much else); and
- in China, whose growth can impact the rest of the world
because of its scale although in turn it can be influenced by events elsewhere.
I thought that there would not be a double dip recession
(although I now know I was wrong) but that inflation would come down and the
public sector deficit would continue to be brought under control albeit slowly.
Concerns are that the Government has prioritised rebuilding bank capital over increased
bank lending and that the Bank of England seems to have no policy prescription
other than Quantitative Easing. This does not help economic growth.

Four other matters are of interest:
Will the coalition continue to work reasonably well?
As it nears mid-term and the warm glow of doing something
fresh fades away under the pressure of events, the coalition will come under
pressure particularly from disenchanted back benchers seeking a media presence
in the absence of a seat in Government. As long as it remembers why it is
there: to focus ruthlessly on getting public sector finances under control: it
should continue. It is in the interests of neither of the parties nor the
country to have a minority Government or an election.

The Leveson enquiry
It has been pretty unedifying and a bit tedious to watch
resentful celebrities and forgetful politicians parade before the enquiry but
this enquiry is important. This enquiry is important for the country; press
freedom is precious and in an over-hyped atmosphere it would be easy to see it
diminished.

Feel good factors
The Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics ought to be good for
the country. I wish we hadn’t got the Olympics (too much of the original ideals
seem to have disappeared under rampant commercialism) but I hope we make the
best of them and the Jubilee should be something special. Hopefully the
spending around both events will offset the fact that many people won’t be
working during them.

Banks: as before, will we stop hating them?
See my 2011 comments.

Abroad, the factors I noted above will be important.

In Europe, the survival of the Euro (which I don’t doubt)
will lead to greater common Governance amongst the Euro area and potentially in
the Union generally. This will put pressure on the British position. Our
relationship with Europe is tense at the best of times – the facts that we’re
an island that’s never been successfully invaded, we have a common law culture and
an international economy mean that we approach the Union with a different
philosophy from the other major countries. Most of the political parties are
divided on the subject, and the coalition is particularly so. Although
renegotiation of our relationship is inevitable it is not a good time to do it
when everyone is in crisis.

In the US, the Presidential election is very close. The
Republicans have made America ungovernable and their candidate does not deserve
to win. But the Democrats have responded by ignoring the need to cut long term
spending commitments as part of sorting out the deficit. Obama inherited
probably the biggest mess ever but has not been able to sound convincing on the
economy. I hope he wins; I suspect he won’t.
In the Middle East, life is as ever a series of flashpoints. I visited Jordan and Israel earlier in the year, an excuse in due course to publish some of my pictures. The visit reinforced my view that the real danger in the Middle East is Israel: it may be closer to the West than the rest of the region but its intolerance could mean it will do something stupid in Iran.

2011 Reprise

2011 seems a long time ago, but as a restart for my blog Ithought I’d briefly comment on my thoughts for that year to see how relevantthey proved to be.

The AV Vote seemed important at the time, and it was.Had AV been supported it would have led to a major change in UK electionpractices. Pleasingly, it was rejected by a substantial majority which shouldput an end to this sort of constitutional meddling for a good few years (Iwrite with the broad philosophy that change is best avoided if things aren’ttoo broken because the unintended consequences are usually much worse than theproblem being solved). However, the result has (as I thought) led to moretensions within the coalition Government because the to keep their supportersquiet the LibDems now have to appear to be getting more out of the arrangement.I think the differentiation between the parties would have happened in anyevent: because Government is harder than people think, frustrations develop;because the next election always gets nearer; because the initial euphoriawears off. But it has happened earlier than otherwise, which is a shame, and policieswill be impacted by posturing rather than practicality. An example is thatClegg and some colleagues are now pushing House of Lords reform. Yet the Houseof Lords is one of the few parts of Government that works well.

The slight reduction in the growth of public expenditure(aka The Cuts). Only history will tell us the outcome; it’s clear that someprogress has been made in reducing the growth in public expenditure but thereis a long way to go before we have a balanced economy.

The impact on the economy

I said the key would be confidence and it is this which hasbeen lacking. Although a significant number of jobs have been created by theprivate sector – almost as much as predicted – people and businesses lackconfidence. Some of this is because of the global economy, because of the europroblems and some because the news, and the message from many in Government, isdepressing. The Government has a difficult task: it has to be negative to keeppopular support for what it is doing but it can’t be so negative as to putpeople off; I think it had the balance wrong. This meant people and businesses didn’tspend or invest. All this coupled with a banking system that is not lending meant2011 saw very low growth.

But it could have been much worse. We have benefitted as acountry from very low interest rates, which have also stopped individuals withhigh borrowings from defaulting and creating further debt problems. The tripleAAA rating that we kept throughout the year has saved us from having to paymuch more for our borrowing leading to much greater public spending cuts and areally serious decline. We kept it because of the focus by the Government onpublic spending cuts to the extent that they convinced the world that theymeant it.

So the cuts are working although a lack of confidenceprevents growth.


The impact on social cohesion

I expressed concern over whether the apparently randomnature of the cuts would reduce the broad public support for them.

This didn’t seem to happen; the public still generallyunderstood the broad efforts of the Government. But there were damagingimpacts, in my view because the public has never accepted the cause of theeconomic crisis: it feels resentful because it is suffering because of others,particularly bankers. I think it is would be right to be resentful becauseothers have done better through the crisis, but it needs to look in the mirrorto find the cause. The general mood is to be ready to react with harshjudgement when things go wrong: the hype about press behaviour and the Murdochempire was a good example in 2011. And the riots showed how easily things cantip into the wrong direction. But although the country seemed tense it alsoseemed accepting of what was being done.

The Royal Wedding

I thought this would be a good news event which would boostthe economy; it was good news, and was brilliantly handled and probably helpedbring people together but sadly didn’t seem to help the economy. I describedthe forthcoming Olympics as a damp squib. That now seems churlish but I suspectit would be better for the economy had it been in Paris.

Bankers

I hoped that banker bashing would diminish – because of theimportance for our economy – and I was wrong. As in many other posts I tried toexplain why we need to understand the faults of banks if we are to put themright.

Freedom of information

I got the theme right: this was an important issue that ranthrough the year. My focus was on Wikileaks and the need for the privacy ofinformation to be respected, although not at the expense of freedom ofinformation.

The big stories were contradictory: the ability of thepowerful to use injunctions to prevent information being published. It appearedfor a time that a few members of the judiciary were determined to prevent pressfreedom, but eventually a combination of political pressure, Private Eye,apparently unconnected stories and pictures in the press and finally Twitterand blogs saw most of the injunctions fail to the chagrin of the odd footballerand actor.

However something much more worrying for freedom ofinformation then happened: a combination of such deep jealousy of the successof News International newspapers by a failing newspaper, the Guardian, that itpublished lies which subsequently had to be corrected and a bitterness byelements of Labour over the Sun’s change to support the Tories saw an outcryand the establishment of the Leveson enquiry into the operations of the pressand the relationships between the press the media and the police. As withbanks, the politicians found it convenient to throw some mud at someone else.Phone hacking is what the press should do: there job is to expose what peopledon’t want exposed and we should be grateful to them.

Again, it’s too soon to say what the outcome will be, but2011 was not good for a free society.

The Euro

I thought it would survive and it did. Bruised, and with anuncertain status in the future, but it’s still here.

The situation is not good for Britain in two regards: oureconomy suffers as our largest trading partner suffers and the problemsencourage some of the sillier members of the Tory party to destabilise theGovernment by trying to push for withdrawal from or renegotiation of theEuropean Union.

“AfPak”

As the west tires of Afghanistan, Pakistan continues to be apowder keg trusting no-one including itself. The instability in the Middle Eastis probably helpful: it shows that over time people can defeat military-sponsoreddictatorships – although at much cost and stability will take many years.resolved.

China

I said:
It faces three broad questions: how it controls the economywithout an excessive boom leading to bust (many think this is inevitable); howit balances a growing middle class and personal wealth with state control and alack of political freedom; and how it chooses to use its influence in worldpolitics – whether it continues to be largely impartial to world events orwhether it seeks to use its influence – and if the latter, how. We will all beimpacted by those questions.

We still are: little changed, for good or bad.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Europe isolated from UK


By co-incidence I was in Belgium and near Maastricht, the birthplace of the Euro, last weekend. This was a good opportunity to assess the aftermath of David Cameron’s decision to veto the proposed European treaty.


The UK media was pretty hysterical about it whether they were pro- or anti-, and they had been vocal about the treaty beforehand. In this relatively rich part of Europe people seemed much less concerned. There was some concern about the state of the Euro and the financial situation and disappointment that the UK had withdrawn from the discussions - but a resigned acceptance that the UK was always different. A much calmer reaction (which perhaps shows that the posturing in the European Parliament was just that, posturing) than in the UK.


I think Cameron had little choice. I think it was unfortunate because it’s always a shame to leave a discussion unresolved, especially because the topic (solving the Euro crisis) was pretty important. But Cameron was stuck: he had no support from his party (the largest party in Parliament) to compromise much; he had no support from other countries who were too scared of the Franco-German axis and he was caught in a disagreement between France and Germany. Had he put off a decision, he would have been criticised at home and more importantly would have been blamed for the eventual collapse of the talks and the weakness in the Euro. Now, the UK has stood aside so if anything goes wrong it’s the fault of the Euro countries – primarily France and Germany. There’s another point in his favour, spelt out by one of his most ardent critics: he played it straight. He didn’t stoop to the Euro sceptics stance of kicking Europe when it was down; he gave everyone warning of what was important to him and he followed through.


The short term winner of the summit was Sarkozy, who needed a win because of his Presidential election next year. He wanted a weak agreement without the EU being able to bind countries, unlike Merkel who wanted a strong formal agreement. The trouble for him is that it is clear, and increasingly clear, that the summit has not helped solve the problem of the Euro and that there will have to be more discussions. Even worse, and perhaps unsurprisingly, more and more countries are stepping away from what they agreed to. The summit may have been portrayed as the UK vs the rest, but the UK will soon be one of many who can’t agree to the plan. This will weaken Sarkozy’s position and strengthen Merkel’s.


As far as UK politics is concerned, Cameron’s position has been strengthened. Miliband had little useful to say and Clegg looked silly. There’s no doubt the Lib-Dems will be disappointed but fundamentally the coalition is about sorting out the UK’s financial position and it is unlikely (not least because of their weakness in the opinion polls) that the Lib-Dems will withdraw. It is more likely that the stupid part of the Conservatives will push for an aggressive stance in the next phase of European discussions. Even though this could damage the coalition, reduce confidence in the UK’s ability to sort out its deficit and therefore harm the UK’s economic situation, and disrupt sorting out the Euro problem – also damaging the UK’s situation. Hopefully a combination of common sense and party discipline will prevail.


As for the Euro: it really is a mess. There are only two solutions, full fiscal union with central budgetary control and Germany picking up the pieces (which in the long term might be unsustainable politically) or the exit or devaluation of the weaker nations. This would be very disruptive in the short term but better in the long term because the Euro could start again. From this side of the Channel it is unclear why the Euro elite are so wedded to a costly project – but they are, and they will do their best to keep the Euro going whatever the cost. The trouble is, it’s a cost to us as well as them.


So for those thinking the summit was bad:
- Most of the sensible politicians in Europe still want the UK engaged. They know we can’t help being straightforward, practical and outward looking. They value that. We will only be on the fringe of decision making if we choose to be.
- The package agreed at the summit will probably fizzle out, we won’t get too much of the blame and discussions will continue.


But for those thinking the result of the summit was a good thing, a couple of warnings:
- in the past we have done well by being slightly disconnected from Europe; we did not suffer from staying out of the euro as so many suggested we would. But that doesn’t mean we should be complacent. Things don’t always repeat themselves.
- The UK is benefitting from a very low interest rate because people still believe we are sorting out the deficit. But our ability to do so is harmed by the struggling European economy. It wouldn’t take much for people to take a hard look at our credit rating and think we too have problems so increasing our borrowing rate. Rather unpleasantly the Bank of France today suggested the UK should lose its AAA status before France. I don’t think we will but we mightn’t be far behind.


It is therefore in our interest to be good Europeans for a bit so we can help them solve the Euro problem –as long as we aren’t pushed too far, as we were last time.



We are, after all, all in this together.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

QE or not QE?

Quantitative easing is not the easiest thing to understand, both in how it works and how well it works. It’s even harder to understand why the Bank of England wanted to spend another £75bn on another QE round. But they did, and the Governor defended the decision in Parliament today.
To me, it’s silly. More than that, it’s really silly.

The Bank of England gives banks and other institutions cash in return for certain types of assets they hold (primarily gilts). The banks and institutions are meant to do useful things with that cash, including (hopefully) lending it to businesses and maybe even individuals. Generally however, they use it to make short term financial gains trading in money markets. They already have lots of cash because they are deliberately reducing their size and increasing their capital (to be able to cope with forthcoming losses). They don’t really need more to increase productive lending.

Thinking of QE as a method of boosting the economy is like putting your foot on a car accelerator when someone has cut the cable. There’s no direct connection. It might work (if for example the car is going downhill) but it might not.

We need to improve growth and business confidence. Surveys show that lending to the engine room of the economy, small businesses, is drying up and the pressure on their working capital is damaging confidence and future investment – and employment. This is where action is needed, urgently, and QE does nothing to help.

Some think QE is inflationary; the Bank thinks it won’t be because it thinks we are about to get deflation. There’s also an argument that this isn’t new permanent money in the system because it is buying assets. However, a cynic would say that inflation is one way of reducing the country’s debt burden. They would note that an abnormally large proportion of the Bank’s pension fund assets are in inflation linked instruments; that could be a co-incidence but it probably isn’t.
Inflation is having a bad effect on household discretionary spending and on household confidence. A lack of confidence prevents spending, increases saving and harms the economy. I’d agree that deflation would also be bad, for different reasons, and it’s not definite that QE will create more inflation. But it might, and is that a risk worth taking?

What QE definitely does do is distort gilt yields, it makes them abnormally low. These yields are used in pension calculations and this distortion has two negative effects:
- New pensioners (unless they are lucky enough to be in the public sector or in defined benefit schemes) have to take their pensions when the annuity rates are low. This, other things being equal, gives them a lower income for the rest of their lives
- The deficits in company pension schemes are increased, so companies have to put more money aside to meet the deficit and have less to use productively in helping growth.

These effects are certain. The benefits of QE are not.

Even if there are some benefits, the effort is not being targeted where the economy needs help: working capital for the SME sector so that business confidence can gradually be built up.

So: it’s a lot of money; it has uncertain benefits (the only certain one being that it is increasing banks’ profits and therefore capital*); it may increase inflation; it will damage new pensioners; it will suck cash out of large companies; and it won’t provide help where it’s needed.

That seems really silly to me.

* See my post about predictions for 2011: the banks are being told to do contradictory things but primarily they are being told to increase their capital and reduce risk.

It's my party and I'll cry if I want to

So 80 or so Tories voted for a referendum in the next parliament.

Although they knew it could not happen: this parliament cannot bind the next.
Although they knew the European economy is in a bad way therefore harming the UK economy, and such a referendum would do further damage.
Although they knew such a referendum would weaken the Government's negotiating position at a time when real change could happen.
Although they knew each vote for the referendum would weaken the Government's negotiating position.
Although they knew that referendums aren't cheap, are a distraction and the focus at the moment should be on the economy.
Although they knew they are representatives meant to do the right thing rather than following the opinions of their constituency associations.

Why? Self indulgence.

It makes you wonder if the Conservatives can be trusted to govern if 80+ of them can behave in such a childish way. I am very occasionally ashamed to belong to the Conservative party; this is one occasion.

What's a bit depressing is that last week was another; what possessed those people on the Tory benches to be supportive of Liam Fox? He should have resigned earlier, and been suspended if he hadn’t. It seems that being on the right wing of the party is enough to offset breaking the ministerial code in a whole number of ways.

Westminster village commentators suggest Cameron did well to string things along until Fox was found out. Because the right wing wouldn't have accepted action until it was inevitable. In the real world people knew the whole thing stank.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Hello again

It's been four months since I posted anything so there maybe no-one out there to read this... the trauma of being a golf club captain, and keeping that blog up to date, meant I didn't have time to maintain this one. But I'm no longer captain so hope to keep this up to date in future.

A lot happened while I was away - phone hacking, riots, Eurozone collapse of confidence, never mind Libya or Syria - and I'll comment on those issues now.

I think the main point of interest is how so 20th century they now appear. They seemed to be incredibly important at the time - headline after headline, lead item on the news for days - and yet once the news spotlight moves on no-one is really interested any more. That says a lot about the inability of news media to focus on what's important, and to keep focused even if its not topical. (I wrote that paragraph on the 1st of September, when the Eurozone crisis had slipped out of the headlines for a few weeks: I have come back to this post on the 24th October when it is certainly back in the headlines. It never went away but as far as the media is concerned, it did).

Phone Hacking

I watched the furore about phone hacking, the demonization and closure of the News of the World and the criticism of the News International group (“NI”) with bemusement – especially as there were so many significant things happening elsewhere - and I’m not surprised that the issue has now largely gone away.

It seemed to be caused largely by a combination of jealousy and revenge at – two hypocritical newspapers, The Guardian and the Independent. Hypocritical and not particularly good selling as well. When the history is written, the News of the World will stand out as a great campaigning newspaper that did far more for the public good than the Guardian could ever dream of doing and Rupert Murdoch as someone who did more for media freedom in the UK than possibly anyone else.

And what would you expect a newspaper to do?
An important part of their job is to tell us things we don’t know. This includes things people don’t want known. Some of these things are justifiably private. The assessment of which those are is a critical part of a newspaper’s job, and there needs to be scope for proper appeal and compensation if a newspaper gets it badly wrong.

But most things people don’t want known should be known and we should be grateful that many newspapers invest time and money in digging into the truth. There is a right to privacy but most of the people investigated by the press lead public lives and use their image to boost their career or status.

Far more worrying is the growing attempt to muzzle the press by injunctions against publication, especially super-injunctions against reporting the existence of an injunction. Pre-hacking, this was the hot issue affecting the media. As most of the details leaked out it was clear that the injunctions had been brought not to protect privacy or other family members but to protect the value of the person’s image. A very few judges have been allowed to create a new branch of law to protect people with a lot of money from the public gaze.

Unfortunately the hacking scandal has allowed the focus to switch and has taken the pressure of politicians to protecting the press. The politicians will be pleased because so many of their misdeeds have been exposed in the past. And remember many of those exposures have used dubious methods but we have been grateful for them.

When I posted on this theme last time I mentioned the excellent BBC serial State of Play. I recommend watching it.



The Riots


Most people took support from the riots for their opinions about what is wrong with Britain today, from the left’s decades attack on family and responsibility causing a collapse in society’s moral fibre to the brutal impact of the cuts on the most vulnerable in society. As news trickled out about those involved, immaturity and the short term madness of crowds became more likely suspects, complemented by incompetent policing in two regards:
- Arrogant handling of a tense situation after police had killed someone, and
- Insufficient focus on stopping trouble before it started.

It was worrying to see how Sir Hugh Orde in particular, the head of ACPO, the self annointed trade association for police heads, was so keen to criticise politicians for their role in trying to resolve the issues when it was clear that the police had lost control. Fortunately he failed to get the job of heading the Met, and hopefully his influence is waning.
There is an investigation underway into the causes of the riots and it’s better to wait for that before commenting too much; there’s not enough information yet. But I take away two things:
- Whatever your position on social exclusion, the work being done by Ian Duncan Smith’s team is critical. If it is successful it will improve people’s lives immeasurably in the long term. If not, many will continue to be excluded from normal society.
- The current method of policing cities – hands off, CCTV, stepping as a final solution – has gone horribly wrong. Zero tolerance, involvement, visibility are words that should start being used.


The Eurozone


Where to start? The simple thing is that the Euro was a mistake from the beginning, at least in involving countries with very different economies. A "core Euro" of France, Germany and Benelux might have worked. But the differences between those countries and the other 12 were too great; things onluy worked for as long as they did because the lenders were happy to provide finance while the world was going through an economic boom - or a bubble. Once that confidence evaporated, the scale of Government debt (made worse in some cases by guaranteeing the debts of banks) meant that the question of who stood behind the Euro could not be avoided. And as we saw in Yugoslavia, if you put things together that should not be together the eventual parting will be painful.


So who does stand behind the Euro? Inevitably, Germany is the only country that can and the question is the price it will extract for doing so. It is inevitable that if the Euro is to be a stable currency that there has to be some form of political as well as economic union - without a common fiscal and central bank policy there cannot be a stable currency region. I think those who doubt the future of the Euro underestimate the willingness of the European governing elite to ensure its survival and the survival of the European dream.


It is inevitable that the Greek Government will default on its debts; hopefully others will not have to as well. But I think it very unlikely that they will leave the Euro: the cost to them and potentially to others would be too great.


The cost of the default will mostly fall on European banks, who will have to be bailed out to some extent by other countries. Mostly Germany.


The treaty changes necessary to implement a co-ordinated form of economic governance in Europe provide the UK with the best chance in years to re-negotiate its involvement in Europe. I have long thought that the solution to our difficulties in Europe is to recognise a two-speed Europe, or an inner and outer core. We should welcome the creation of a more harmonised Europe for those who want it and we should take our proper place in the slow lane.


Libya/Syria?


The intervention has worked. Despite a lot of criticism of Cameron and Sarkozy at the beginning, their humanitarian instincts have helped successfully depose an evil man and we should be grateful to them (as should the Libyans, who should now get on with running their country). Syria seems to tied up with Russia and Iran to be given a similar level of help. Its hard to understand why Russia doesn't want to get on the right side of history, but hopefully Libya will motivate Syrians go continue their struggle.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

AV scam

Quick update on AV; thanks to Guido I saw this article about the serious conflict between the yes campaign, the referendum and the profits people hope to make out of a change to the system.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

AV or not AV?

I haven't posted on the referendum for two reasons: first because my focus has been on posting about life as a golf club captain and second because I hadn't fully made up my mind.

AV has a whiff of fairness about it, but it also brings with it complexity, a change to something that doesn't really need fixing and an increase in the power of parties over individuals.

The more I've thought about it - and have looked at the respective campaigns - neither of which have been impressive - the more I think the flaws of AV outweigh the benefits and will vote no.

There are problems with most forms of democratic voting systems (where the area is bigger than an area where people know each other well); problems of not identifying with the MP, not having equal representation (Labour need many fewer votes per MP than Tories or Lib Dems), under-representation of extremists (many would see that as a good point), MPs not being selected by more than 50% of the votes, MPs being selected by small groups of people because they are good party people (eg MEPs); and so on. Volumes of words have been written on the subject. AV solves none of them - not even being selected by more than 50% of voters, because you don't have to cast more than one vote.

Which is why, until the yes campaign kicked off, most of its current suppporters did not support it.

There's another reason some of the current supporters changed their minds having previously been negative: money. The cost of running an AV election will be substantial (£250m+). A main financial promotor of the AV campaign is an organisation (the electoral reform society) that will profit from the change.

Many supporters say that although AV is not perfect, it is at least a change from the current system. These tend to be LibDems - although there has been research into the effect AV would have had on past elections, it's hard to work it out accurately. The effect seems to be that when there's a significant swing in mood (eg to Thatcher or Blair) AV would emphasise that swing and when there isn't it would emphasise the middle. But the party that would do best out of it in general seems to be the LibDems. The result is therefore likely to be less effective opposition or coalitions based on party negotiations.

I don't really accept the "no" campaign's argument that the system is too complicated to explain - and yet: remember the significant number of spoiled ballots in Scotland in the 2007 election? Complexity really did have a negative impact.

Our current system is one of the better alternatives. There has to be a clear reason to change. AV doesn't solve most electoral problems, it will cost a lot and is likely to lead to more power for political parties rather than less. (I will always remember the photo of Nick Clegg's coalition negotiating notes showing he was mostly concerned with the Lib Dems status rather than policy).


I have another problem with the vote: I think important changes should be carefully considered. I don't like the idea of referendums deciding something unless there are some safeguards: a certain % of people should vote; the majority should be more than 50% to take account of the fact that some people won't vote; ideally there should be two referendums for major changes, say 5 years apart, so the result isn't swayed by short term issues. The thing about change is you can't put it back. But you can always change in the future.


So in the absence of clear reasons to change - and because there are some good reasons not to - I'm voting no.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

2011

Predictions are best made after the event so (even with the advantage of being 8% of the way through the year) I will instead highlight what I think will be the important issues of 2011.

In the UK:

The AV Vote

Although most people have given this topic little thought, the vote in May will be very relevant to the future of the coalition. And future Parliaments.

If there is a no vote, then proportional representation will be unlikely for many years. This would be a hard blow for the LibDems and would make many wonder what they have got out of the coalition (apart of course from helping to salvage the economy). Given that the coalition will be at its most unpopular the temptation for some to bail out will be high. Even if they don’t, many will be sullen and uncooperative. The opposite would be the case if there’s a yes vote: a lot of Conservatives will be fed up and see yet another (as they see it) LibDem victory. So whatever the result, the tensions on the back benches will increase. I think it’s most likely that the coalition will continue but there’ll be more discontent which will make it harder to achieve its aims.

As far as the future is concerned, it seems to be hard to predict the impact of AV – especially as there’ll be fewer and hopefully more consistent constituencies. Some think it’ll have little impact, but it’s more likely to increase the chance of coalitions. This one has worked surprisingly well so far. But it’s not obvious we need lots more.

The slight reduction in the growth of public expenditure (aka The Cuts):

The impact on the economy

The key is confidence.
Acting quickly to get the deficit under control was good. It gave investors – the people who fund our deficit – confidence in the country. It has allowed us to keep funding the deficit without paying high interest rates, the costs of which would add to the deficit. It allowed business to feel that the Government was getting a grip and that they in turn could invest to re-balance the economy to one of wealth creation rather than public waste.

Although the scale of the cuts is small, changing the trend from massive growth in public spending to a standstill or slight reduction is like turning an ocean liner. There will be unemployment, projects will stop (although infrastructure investment is continuing) and people will be nervous. As the global economy has picked up, so has inflation especially in raw materials, exaggerated in the UK by a weaker pound which complicates the reaction of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee. Nervousness – a lack of confidence - could constrain spending and investment and therefore damage growth.

As the cuts start to come into effect this year, the interplay of these two impacts on confidence will be critical to whether we see growth returning in the UK in 2011/12.

The impact on social cohesion
Many people will be using the cuts to ferment trouble: ultimately the cuts threaten an end to all those who live off the culture of dependency, especially Labour. But the degree of change requires a broad public sympathy – not necessarily a majority agreement, but some respect that the right things is being done. Initially, that sympathy is there. Will it stay as the cuts bite?
The first sets of demonstrations, about changes to the funding of university students, were if anything beneficial to the Government. The sight of privileged youths creating a mess on the whole increased support for the proposals. And the public sector unions run major risk if they inconvenience the public too much by what are perceived to be political demonstrations.

But: if the cuts impact too much on front line staff then public sympathy could shift. There’s a growing feeling that there is total lack of joined-up thinking to the cuts, with every arm of government looking to its own interests, in particular with councils cutting charity and voluntary funding much more sharply than their own, because it preserves their empires and saves them redundancy costs. Coupled with silly things like the sale of woodland and rushed changes to the NHS, all this could change attitudes and make it impossible to implement the cuts effectively.

2011 will tell.


The Royal Wedding


This is a good news event; it’ll give a feel-good factor. The sales of commemorative tea-towels and mugs will all help boost the economy as will the influx of tourists. It’ll also be good for our national image increasing tourism on a longer term basis.
I think in fact it’ll be much more useful than the Olympics in the following year, which will probably be an expensive damp squib. The happy couple have chosen a good time to increase our national morale and – hopefully – confidence.


Bankers

London is one of the two major financial centres in the world – probably the major international one. The financial services business generates substantial employment from those who support it ranging from lawyers and accountants to restaurants and builders. It is the driving force of the UK economy, one of the few businesses where we are world leaders. It is also much wider than just “banks”.

Yet popular opinion seems to despise bankers, far more than in any other country – even the US, where the devastation from the house price collapse was worse than the UK. As regular readers know, I think the banks made major mistakes in the last few years and that as a country we did not exact enough reward for bailing some of them out. However, the banks were neither wholly or primarily to blame for the “credit crisis”, and it is likely that we will make a profit on the bail outs we did make. The US investigation into the causes blames a number of factors, primarily lax Government policy; the best explanation I have seen came from Michael Geoghegan, ex-CEO of HSBC (with JP Morgan one of only two Western banks that truly did not need help; he can therefore be dispassionate):

"The financial crisis was a heady cocktail of western governments voted in on consumer agendas, and financed by banks in the western world that didn’t have domestic savers’ deposits to fund the growth in consumer lending and then relied on foreign wholesale deposits which were quickly withdrawn when doubts about the western financial system arose”.

So why do we hate bankers so much more in the UK than elsewhere? I think there are three reasons:
- Our Government was more to blame than most for the crisis in the UK (because of its uncontrolled public sector expenditure, the lax regulatory system it set up and the inadequate responsibilities of the monetary policy committee). It therefore made much more effort to blame the banks than other Governments, and in the heat of the crisis the opposition had to follow suit;
- The UK has a limited number of big banks, which most people bank with. And often have bad consumer experiences with. These banks are involved in wholesale international markets as well. In the US, the banks involved in international markets tend not to be those most people bank with and so the issues are more distant.
- The disadvantage of a vibrant press in the UK is that they rarely let facts get in the way of a good story.

But even with these reasons I don’t understand the depth of dislike. It has two bad consequences for the UK:

- If you don’t understand what went wrong, the remedies will also be wrong; we won’t put in place the right structures to minimise the risks in future. This is particularly worrying because the world has not by any means finished working its way through the debt problem.
- Over time, the negative feelings will cause international financial services to drift away. Most other countries are putting in place favourable tax and regulatory regimes to take the business away just as we are doing the opposite. Good riddance, people cry. But in ten years or so time, when our tax and employment base is much less, and the centre of international commercialism has shifted so our influence and involvement in the world economy is less, we will suffer. Not the ex-bankers by the way – they’ll be fine. The general public.

Will 2011 be a year when banker bashing becomes less emotional? I doubt it. But for the long term future of the UK I hope so.


Briefly, elsewhere:

Freedom of information


Wikileaks' publication of a mass of stolen emails from the US Government caused split views: a bold campaigner for truth and freedom of expression? Or a careless exploiter of stolen information?

The thing that worried me about Wikileaks’ supporters was their conflation between freedom of expression – and important right that people should be able to say what they think – and freedom of information, defined as the right to have all information even if it is private. Or, to repeat the point, stolen. The right to take and use what isn’t yours isn’t a good thing and labelling it as freedom of expressions does not make it so.

We live in a world where people are more and more inclined to make information about themselves public, even if they later come to regret it. This attitude will permeate society and generally this is a good thing. Transparency especially over Government activity is a good thing. But not to an unlimited extent. People have to have private discussions and thoughts before they make decisions. As we put more of our information into databases we don’t control we will lose control of our information. I don’t know the end game, but I am sure that the trend will continue in 2011 and I am nervous about the consequences. I think we’ll be more manipulated than free. And the distinction between private and public remarks will diminsh to the loss of all of us.


The Euro

Will it survive? There were many doubters last year as investors in various countries’ government debt lost confidence in their ability to repay, demanding higher interest rates and eventually causing bail-outs. Each country had different reasons for the problem, from Greece’s original unsuitability to be a member of the Euro-zone to Ireland’s decision to fully guarantee its banks. All highlighted the problems of the original Euro project: to have a common currency amongst countries with insufficient economic convergence, with no proper assessment of the extent of the convergence and no common governance process to monitor each other’s economies and to transfer money from one country to another. If things were left alone, almost certainly countries would have to leave the Euro-zone and the project would be damaged (although had the Euro originally just been a core group of about four or five countries aligned with the German economy it probably would have not come under strain).

However, it is unlikely that they will be left alone: there is a tremendous political pressure in Germany and France to keep the Euro going and the effectiveness of that pressure should never be doubted. It does seem that the two countries will force through governance changes which will solve some of the original problems, with mechanisms for transfer payments in return for tighter central controls over countries’ economies. And there may be a partial default or two. The long term result should be good for Europe’s economies.


I don’t think we should be part of this process, I think as a result we will shift to an outer tier of European harmonisation but I think that will be very healthy. We needn’t integrate as closely as others would like, but we needn’t be a drag on those who want to. We will always be a large player and therefore with influence.


Afpak”

Just as last year, this region is at the heart of the problem of terrorism driven by Islamic fundamentalism. Pakistan has a massive population, problems of poverty, a poor education system, corruption and a military whose paranoia over India and Kashmir has caused it (mostly indirectly) to be a prime sponsor of terrorism. It also has nuclear weapons. I don’t think anyone knows what to do: I think the only hope is that Pakistan’s educated middle class can act as a calming influence to bring aspects of the country together over time, and in the meantime there are no regional outbursts that that add to the tension.

Historic links with Saudi Arabia, which has funded most of the extremist schools, bring the problem closer to the Middle East where Israel continues to have a short term view of the situation: its oppression of the Palestinians continues to breed longer term problems.

I write this as the situation in Egypt remains uncertain; and what happens there will affect other Arab dictatorships. As well as Israel. 2011 doesn’t seem like a calm year in the Middle East.


China


Economically, only one country counts: China. Its economic growth, the size of its savings which are largely funding the US and the increase in average wealth of the population are the main things that will determine the world’s economy in 2011. That’s not to diminish the importance of other emerging economies, or the likely recovery in America, but China will dominate the out-turn.

It faces three broad questions: how it controls the economy without an excessive boom leading to bust (many think this is inevitable); how it balances a growing middle class and personal wealth with state control and a lack of political freedom; and how it chooses to use its influence in world politics – whether it continues to be largely impartial to world events or whether it seeks to use its influence – and if the latter, how. We will all be impacted by those questions.


To close: a quote from Warren Buffet: forecasts are a better guide to the forecaster than the future.