News, Culture & Society

ALEX BRUMMER: Haldane’s departure is the Bank’s chance for a reboot

The Bank of England’s loss is a gain for the historic Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (RSA). 

Amid the dull upper-echelons at the Bank of England, chief economist Andy Haldane is the figure most willing to think out of the box.

He has been a breath of fresh air in the pandemic, with his optimism about a V-shaped recovery and vision of the UK economy as a ‘coiled spring’ ready to rebound.

Stepping down: Amid the dull upper-echelons at the Bank of England, chief economist Andy Haldane is the figure most willing to think out of the box

His work on industrial strategy and restoring some of the more desolate parts of the North pre-dates Boris Johnson’s levelling up and building back.

Haldane’s departure comes hard on the heels of the decision of one of the Bank’s other rising stars, Alex Brazier, to step aside as executive director for financial stability.

Loss of the talented Haldane and Brazier might have been less surprising when the sometimes spiky Mark Carney was governor. Successor Andrew Bailey is considered to have a more collegiate style.

Indeed, Bailey allowed Haldane off the leash, enabling him to explore territory of which central bank governors steer clear for fear of disrupting markets. 

The immediate reaction of City economists to Haldane’s departure was to speculate about the impact on UK interest rates.

Haldane has been the most hawkish Bank insider on the Monetary Policy Committee, fearing that the loose fiscal and monetary response to Covid will raise inflation and require an interest rate response.

His move to the RSA as chief executive might seem less than such an accomplished figure deserved. After an appropriate period away from the Bank he could have joined an investment bank. 

Alternatively, he would also be a candidate for a top economist posts at a global financial institution.

The RSA, currently headed by Tony Blair acolyte Matthew Taylor, will offer him a platform to pursue key interests. 

As chairman of the recently dissolved Industrial Strategy Council, Haldane had hoped to bring to manufacturing the same intellectual rigour that guides monetary policy by using quantitative tools to drive change.

But he also has a passion for addressing inequalities. He once recalled to me standing on elevated ground overlooking the Manchester conurbation and noting the contrast between the glistening towers and restoration at the core of the city and the social and industrial poverty all around.

Haldane’s departure must not be squandered by the Bank. There is a woeful lack of women at the highest level, including the Governor and his deputies, and the vacancy would be an opportunity to address that and bring in some exciting new thinking.

Too often in recent times the Bank has looked to the Treasury to fill senior roles but all that does is create more ‘groupthink’ of the kind which failed to notice that Greensill Capital was a financial cluster bomb which would bring a former prime minister into disrepute, put jobs at risk and cause havoc in Zurich and Frankfurt.

The Old Lady needs to be better than that.

Security threat

It is not often that a company announces £1.7billion of downs, more than its market value, and the shares soar 32 per cent. 

This could be relief that chief executive David Lockwood, having scared investors by ordering an independent review of defence contractor Babcock’s balance sheet, had not discovered anything terminal.

Lockwood has a record of impatient stewardship of historic UK enterprises, notably Cobham, which he sold to private equity pal Advent. 

Aerospace pioneer Cobham is reeling from its new ownership as Advent has completed a rapid series of disposals.

As the UK’s second-largest defence contractor, Babcock is responsible for maintaining the UK’s nuclear submarine fleet and helping to build two aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy.

It ought to be bid-proof on national security grounds alone. But given Lockwood’s record you cannot be sure.

Grab bag

Anything London can do, New York can do better.

After the City gave Deliveroo a miserable welcome to public markets New York has risen to the challenge and placed a £30billion valuation on south-east Asia’s ride, food delivery and financial app group, Grab.

The potential market is enormous. But Grab has never made a profit and none of the investors, including Blackrock, have mentioned employment conditions, voting structures or anything else. Funny that!

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