The UK economy's slowdown is clear to all. Except the Bank of England


Mark Carney is not so much an unreliable boyfriend as a schoolboy who keeps getting his homework wrong. The Bank of England governor gave his quarterly review of the economy last week and yet again confounded earlier expectations that he would increase the cost of borrowing.

Whereas in the past Carney has confidently predicted that the economy is robust and capable of absorbing increases in interest rates, only to find plausible excuses for not going ahead, this time he was unable to offer any coherent defence.

At the press conference held following the Bank’s quarterly inflation report, Carney was challenged by journalists again and again that his answers failed to add up. He became irritable and on occasion abrupt with his interrogators.

His counterpart at the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, has a similar reputation for spiky relationships, especially with the press. But his excuse for never raising interest rates is consistent.

He avoids the trap of exuberance based on a few months of good economic news, unlike Carney. It means Draghi has rarely made the mistake of leading consumers, mortgage payers and the financial markets to believe the cost of borrowing will rise imminently when in the end it does not.

Carney tells us time and again that things are about to get better and that the end of easy money must accompany this improvement. The question is, will anyone believe him again when he says interest rates are about to rise?

The Bank’s nine-strong monetary policy committee, of which Carney is chair, always has a good excuse for another delay. It said the bad economic news in the first few months of the year was just a blip and once normal service is resumed, rate rises will begin to kick in. Yet to anyone outside the Bank, the downward trend is clear. The economy is slowing and to an alarming degree.

Ever since the Brexit vote the housing market has deflated. The number of transactions has fallen and prices growth stalled. It is a market held up by government subsidy in the shape of George Osborne’s Help to Buy scheme, and now even that is not enough to propel it forward. The Halifax has reported a decline of 3.2% between January and March, the steepest fall in nine years.

The lack of action in the mortgage market is reflected in the credit markets, which have shown a major squeeze on the growth in secured and unsecured borrowing. It seems that fewer and fewer people each month want to borrow to spend and invest.

This might not matter if pay growth was about to take off. That it will take off has been the Bank’s central projection since the beginning of the decade. But it has never happened.

Carney said low unemployment and a high number of job vacancies meant an uplift in wage growth was still imminent.

Over at the Office for National Statistics, the measure of average weekly wages points in a different direction. It shows weekly incomes have fallen in every month since October 2017 to hit £486. This compares with an average wage (in 2015 prices) that reached a high point of £522.50 a week in 2008. In April last year the average was £8 higher than today at £494.

Wages are a crucial element of household spending power. The other is credit. If both are going down or growth is falling, the economy has a problem; it’s not a blip.

Inequality, not merit, is behind soaring art valuations

While sitting in the back of a car, Damien Hirst scribbled a sketch of a shark and handed it to his driver as a tip for a smooth journey. The chauffeur later sold the piece, which had taken the enfant terrible of British art about 30 seconds to draw, for £4,500.

The anecdote reflects well on Hirst’s generosity, but portrays the wealthy art-buying community in a less flattering light. And that group of rich aesthetes is having a busy fortnight. Last week the private art collection of David Rockefeller was sold off, fetching multimillion-dollar prices including $115m for Picasso’s Fillette à la corbeille fleurie (Young Girl with a Flower Basket). On Monday, Nu couché (Reclining Nude) by Amedeo Modigliani goes up for sale at Sotheby’s in New York with a valuation of at least $150m. Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World) went on sale with an estimated value of $100m last year before it was sold for a record $450m, so the Modigliani valuation could be conservative.

If the price of art is driven by a combination of aesthetic merit and scarcity, Hirst’s dashed-off piece doesn’t pass the test. The sale of a Modigliani or a Leonardo at least meets those requirements. But what links all three pieces, and raises wider questions about the art market, is wealth. There is a significant number of people ready to waste their capital on objects that, in a world with more equally distributed wealth, would never achieve those valuations. Roman Abramovich, who made his fortune buying Russian state assets on the cheap, spent tens of millions on a pair of paintings by Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, while Steve Cohen, the billionaire hedge fund owner whose SAC fund pleaded guilty to insider trading in 2013, paid $165m for Masterpiece by Roy Lichtenstein.

The art market is not an arbiter of taste. It is a symbol of inequality.

We can’t have a sensible debate on train tickets without mentioning their prices

The key words in the rail industry’s announcement of a review of fares regulation last week were “revenue neutral”. In other words, the £9.7bn a year that passengers spend on tickets will not be reduced – or increased.

Some of the points raised in the statement by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), formed by train operators and Network Rail, are sensible: that seven-day season tickets do not reflect the realities of flexible working (and, implicitly, a three- or four-day-a-week season ticket would be better); that multiple single fares are often cheaper than a single through ticket; and that the amount of fares available on the rail system – a boggling 55 million – is too many.

But failure to address the average price of tickets – whether allowing that price to fall to encourage more rail journeys, or actually raising prices in order to pay for, say, new lines and trains – leaves the impression of an incomplete review. As the RDG admits, the funding balance between the fare payers and taxpayers – the latter paid a net £3.4bn into the railways last year – will not be scrutinised because “this choice is rightly a matter for governments”.

Whether total fare revenues rise or fall should be a matter for voters and their representatives, but that should not dissuade train operators and Network Rail from offering its informed opinion on whether the railways require greater investment and who should pay for it. So far, the nation’s balance sheet has done the heavy lifting. At £46bn and rising, Network Rail’s debt is too large.

Relentlessly raising fare revenue – up 18% over five years – while pushing down the taxpayer contribution – down 21% over the same period – seems an unjust balance given the public, social and environmental good that railways represent. Let’s have a sensible, open debate about it.



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