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Analysis

BoE sees tight labour market as trigger for higher rates

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UK interest rates updates

The Bank of England was not expecting to change its coronavirus monetary policy guidance so soon.

For the past year it has said it would not even consider tightening monetary policy “until there is clear evidence that significant progress is being made in eliminating spare capacity and achieving the 2 per cent inflation target sustainably”.

With inflation having already burst through this target, reaching 2.5 per cent in June and the BoE now thinking it will rise to 4 per cent later this year, and signs of labour shortages across the economy, the committee decided to drop that guidance.

None of the Monetary Policy Committee was ready to raise interest rates yet from the historic low of 0.1 per cent, but the committee agreed new guidance that said if economic data followed its latest forecasts, “some modest tightening of monetary policy over the forecast period is likely to be necessary to be consistent with meeting the inflation target sustainably in the medium term”.

The change and the new guidance raised lots of legitimate questions on what the MPC meant in practice, but Andrew Bailey, BoE governor, was not in a mood to be transparent when discussing the committee’s new stance at a press conference on Thursday.

He declined to answer simple questions about the balance of opinion on the committee and the definition of “modest”, but he was a little more forthcoming in his press conference on what the trigger would be for higher interest rates.

Line chart of CPI inflation (annual % change). Actual and BoE forecasts showing The BoE now expects UK inflation to reach four per cent this year

The first two “key judgments” that the MPC would consider before changing policy were its view that much of the coming rise in inflation would reverse automatically next year and that there would be a continued recovery as the pandemic waned. On these Bailey was confident the committee’s view was right. It was a third judgment, on the labour market, that he stressed was most likely to prove the trigger for higher interest rates earlier than expected in the months to come.

The outlook for employment has already changed much faster than expected, with many employers now struggling to hire even though both unemployment and inactivity remain well above pre-pandemic levels.

“The challenge of avoiding a steep rise in unemployment has been replaced by that of ensuring a flow of labour into jobs,” Bailey told the news conference, adding that the committee would closely monitor labour market developments, particularly on unemployment, wider measures of slack in the economy, and underlying wage pressures.

The BoE now thinks that unemployment, which was 4.8 per cent at the end of May, has peaked, and will fall steadily to 4.4 per cent in a year’s time and 4.2 per cent from 2023.

Underlying wage growth has already returned to near pre-pandemic levels, the bank estimates. This is much stronger than expected given the large number of workers still standing on the sidelines: there are 250,000 more unemployed than pre-pandemic, 750,000 more counted as inactive, and 2m still at least partly furloughed in late June.

But what is worse from an inflation perspective is that the BoE has found evidence of “frictions” in the labour market, especially the difficulties employers are reporting in recruitment.

For now, the MPC is taking the view that these problems are temporary and are “likely to dissipate” with the hiring crunch owing in large part to the speed at which entire sectors reopened. Another factor behind the shortages — existing employees’ apparent reluctance to look for a new job — would in any case be more likely to depress wage growth than to fuel it.

Companies report recruitment difficulties

But the MPC warned that if labour shortages proved bigger and more persistent than expected — if workers were in the wrong place, or had the wrong skills, for the jobs available, or if young people who had left the labour market to study stayed in education for some years — that was likely to make wages rise, inflation more persistent and the BoE raise interest rates.

When it does become time to tighten monetary policy, the BoE also changed its guidance on Thursday on how it will make borrowing more expensive for households, businesses and government.

Until Thursday, the BoE’s declared policy had been that it would not change the level of money created and assets purchased under its quantitative easing scheme until interest rates had reached 1.5 per cent.

In future, it said that once interest rates reached 0.5 per cent, it would no longer reinvest the proceeds of government bonds that reached maturity and were redeemed.

Bailey said this new policy of quantitative tightening was not supposed to supplant higher interest rates, but would provide a “predicable and gradual” path for reversing quantitative easing. Some £70bn of the BoE’s £875bn gilt holding are due to mature across 2022 and 2023, with another £130bn across 2023 and 2024, he added.

Once interest rates rose to 1 per cent, the MPC said it would consider active sales of the assets it owned, but only if that was warranted by economic conditions and sales “would not disrupt the functioning of financial markets”.

In both areas of policy, the BoE was adamant it was making no promises and would change policy only when that was needed to keep inflation under control. This meant the wait-and-see strategy that has been its watchword since the early days of the coronavirus crisis would continue.

But as Ruth Gregory, senior UK economist at Capital Economics, said: “Talking about the mechanics of tightening policy, that is another signal that tightening is drawing nearer”.



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Analysis

Paris terror victims to make voices heard at landmark French trial

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Terrorism updates

The Palais de Justice in Paris has been at the heart of French legal affairs for centuries but the case starting there on Wednesday is like no other: the landmark trial of 20 men accused of planning and carrying out terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and wounded hundreds more.

Those deadly hours starting on November 13 2015, have been labelled by some as France’s own version of what the US lived through on September 11 2001. They formed part of a traumatic period in France when Isis fighters returning from Syria and Iraq, and French citizens who adhered to their cause, carried out a series of deadly acts, from killing journalists at Charlie Hebdo magazine in January 2015 to the truck rampage in Nice in July 2016.

Only one of the men on trial, which will take place with five judges in a specially prepared courtroom over nine months, is accused of being directly involved in the attacks. Most of the perpetrators died that night.

François Molins, the then Paris prosecutor who rushed to the scene of the attacks, said the trial would have stakes beyond judging the accused.

“The trial must fulfil several objectives, the first of which is revealing the truth of what happened,” he added. “It should help the victims in their healing process by having a cathartic effect. It will also be an occasion to remind us of our society’s values of humanity and dignity, which stands in stark contrast to those espoused by the Islamist terrorists.”

An aspect of the French legal system that differs from common law in the UK or the US will lend a particular intensity to the trial: about 1,800 victims, often the families of those killed, have joined the case as civil parties. 

That gives them the right to be represented by lawyers who can ask questions and call witnesses, just like the defence and prosecution. Victims who want to speak about how they were affected can do so during five weeks set aside for such testimony.

Journalists capture images inside the temporary courtroom prepared for trial over the 2015 terrorist attacks
The case will be heard in a temporary structure under the vaulted ceiling of a ceremonial hall in the Palais de Justice © Yoan Valat/EPA/Shutterstock

Philippe Duperron, whose 30-year-old son Thomas was killed in the attacks and who heads the victims’ association 13onze15 Fraternité et Vérité, will be among them.

“We must embody the victims so they are not relegated to anonymity,” he said. “I will carry the voice of Thomas. I owe him that as his father.”

Sharon Weill, a law professor specialising in terrorism trials at the American University of Paris, said the victims’ prominent role would set this trial apart. It will also allow for scrutiny of intelligence failures before the attacks, such as lack of co-ordination with other European countries.

“The proceedings will really be a mixture of a criminal trial and a sort of truth commission to establish the narrative and collective memory,” said Weill.

The attackers struck Parisians enjoying a Friday night. Supervised by Isis, three teams fanned out across the capital in rented cars. In just under four hours they set off suicide bombs near a football match at Stade de France, fired automatic weapons at people drinking at café terraces in the city’s trendy 10th arrondissement, and killed 90 people in a rampage at the Bataclan theatre, where an American metal band was playing.

Eleven attackers died, either blowing themselves up or being killed by police. French and Belgian investigators tracked the surviving attackers through recovered mobile phones to a cell in the Molenbeek neighbourhood of Brussels. 

Soon after, police killed two alleged attackers in a Paris suburb, including Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian-Moroccan mastermind of the operation. But it took a long manhunt to catch Salah Abdeslam, who will be the sole defendant at the trial accused of being directly involved that night.

Abdeslam told Belgian investigators in 2016 that he had rented cars and dropped off the commandos at the Stade de France, but did not follow through on the plan to blow himself up there. He said little during years of investigations by French magistrates and it remains to be seen if he will speak at the trial.

Thirteen other defendants allegedly provided logistical support, such as renting cars or apartments, providing fake passports, or obtaining weapons. Six defendants, including several Isis leaders who allegedly planned operations in Europe, are being tried in absentia, although some are thought dead in Syria. 

A person cries as she stands at a makeshift memorial for the victims of a series of deadly attacks in Paris
A memorial for the victims of the Paris attacks. The victims and their families will have access to an audio feed of the trial to follow proceedings © Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images

Among the witnesses will be former president François Hollande, as well as the then interior minister and intelligence services chiefs. They are likely to face questions about how the attackers pulled off the operation even though many were on the radar of security services. “This will not be a trial to judge the state’s actions, but that of the defendants,” Hollande told Libération newspaper in comments published this month. “But I feel I have a duty to help with the search for truth.”

Since no courtroom was big enough, the case will be heard in a 700 sq m temporary structure under the vaulted ceiling of a ceremonial hall in the Palais de Justice. Cameras will record the proceedings, while efforts have been made to ensure that the victims and their families can exercise their rights as civil parties without renewed trauma. An audio feed of the trial will be accessible only to them, so they can follow proceedings. Psychologists will be available to provide support. 

Arthur Dénouveaux, a survivor of the Bataclan attack who leads Life for Paris, a victims’ group, said he was surprised by the powerful emotions revived by the upcoming trial.

“I do not have the control over them that I thought, despite having done many steps in recovery,” Dénouveaux said. “But the message I will carry at the trial is that terrorism does not destroy us. We are still here and we are alive.”



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Norway’s oil rises to top of election agenda as climate fears grow

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Norway’s voters are to give their verdict next week in what has become a “climate election” — jolted into life by the UN report last month that issued a stark “code red” over the impact of environmental change.

The UN report has forced Norway to examine a big contradiction at the heart of its economy. The country is one of the largest proponents of green solutions such as electric cars and carbon capture storage: seven in 10 new cars sold last month in Norway were fully electric.

But the country is also western Europe’s biggest petroleum producer, with a massive sovereign wealth fund accumulated on the back of oil and gas output.

That dissonance is being tested in the election on Sunday and Monday. Support is rising for the Green party, which says it will only join a government that promises an immediate halt to oil and gas exploration. The two other main parties campaigning on climate, the Socialist Left and Liberals, are also rising in the polls. The Greens’ membership numbers have jumped by a third in just a few weeks.

“It was a game-changer for Norway when that UN report came out. It is now the most important seven days in Norway’s history,” said Kriss Rokkan Iversen, deputy leader of the Greens.

Espen Barth Eide, energy spokesman for the centre-left Labour party agreed: “This is clearly the climate election, even more than people thought it would be.” Labour leads in polls but oil is likely to be an obstacle to a viable coalition.

Norway’s two biggest political parties — Labour and the centre-right Conservatives of prime minister Erna Solberg — stand firmly behind the oil industry, which is responsible for about 160,000 direct jobs, or about 6 per cent of the total.

Labour leader Jonas Gahr Store with prime minister and Conservative leader Erna Solberg
Labour leader Jonas Gahr Store with prime minister and Conservative leader Erna Solberg © Gorm Kallestad/Reuters

Tina Bru, the Conservative oil and energy minister, is firmly against ending exploration or setting an end date for Norway’s petroleum production, arguing for doing more to cut global demand.

“We are preparing for a future with less demand for oil and gas, we’re building new green industries, but we won’t get there by hurting our economy, destroying jobs and dismantling an industry,” she said.

Eide said: “We want to undermine the prospects for a long-term oil industry rather than closing the supply.”

Norwegian oil production has risen in recent years following the discovery of the giant Johan Sverdrup field in the North Sea. It is set to fall again from 2025 or so.

Solberg told the Financial Times this summer that she would not act to accelerate that decline but that Norway was on a gradual “shift” to green industries.

Following a tax tweak last year that helped the oil industry, Solberg’s government this month proposed another complicated fiscal change that appears mildly positive in the short term for most companies active in Norway, while making speculative exploration costlier.

Extinction Rebellion environmental activists protest outside Norway’s oil ministry
Extinction Rebellion environmental activists protest outside Norway’s oil ministry © Ole Berg-Rusten/AFP/Getty Images

“It’s a sign that the oil market in Norway is becoming mature and is only attractive to fewer companies. But the worry is that this is the second change in two years after years of stability — it shows how oil could become more of a political football,” said a senior executive at an oil company active in Norway.

For the Greens, the tax debate is a sideshow. As well as ending exploration, they also want to halt production by 2035.

Iversen said Norway was a petroleum pioneer in the 1960s and 1970s but did not have the same spirit for the “green shift” — with, for instance, the world’s largest wind farm developer found in neighbouring Denmark.

Of the willingness to stick by the oil industry, she said: “It’s a question of feeling and identity for many Norwegians. I don’t think it’s rational.”

Defenders of the oil industry have also stepped up their rhetoric. Sylvi Listhaug, the leader of the populist Progress party, this summer posted a social media picture of her filling her car up, with the caption: “Lovely with the smell of real fuel.”

Barth Eide said Labour, under its leader Jonas Gahr Store, would not go into government with a party that insisted on stopping exploration or production. However, its two favourite coalition partners — Centre, and the Socialist Left — hold almost opposing views on Norway’s biggest industry.

Eide said a compromise was possible, avoiding over-investing in oil but refusing to put an end-date on either production or exploration. He also hinted that contentious exploration in the Barents Sea, inside the Arctic Circle, could end as companies such as state-controlled Equinor favour proven areas in the North and Norwegian Seas.

The Greens’ Kriss Rokkan Iversen
The Greens’ Kriss Rokkan Iversen. Support for the party has risen recently © Siri Døsen

Labour is likely to have a much more interventionist industrial policy as it attempts to speed up the green transition. “It has clearly gone too slowly . . . The pace does not fit with the remaining time,” Barth Eide added.

Economists believe Norway’s move away from oil will be expensive but unavoidable. “Can we afford to wind down? It’s going to be extremely costly. But can we afford not to? No, we can’t. It’s hard to say that doing nothing is the best option, but we need to find a good balance,” said Hilde Bjornland, economics professor at BI Norwegian Business School.

Iversen argued that if Norway failed to move away from oil quickly enough, it could hurt both the climate and its famously generous welfare state.

“In the middle of the climate and Covid crises . . . we locked ourselves even more into oil and gas,” she said. “It is like we have this oil fog blurring our view and stopping us setting a course for our future.”

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El Salvador becomes a crypto laboratory with bitcoin gamble

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Like millions of Salvadorans, chauffeur Ricardo López has spent the past few weeks trying to get his head around bitcoin. Once the digital currency becomes legal tender this week, he is not sure he will accept it, but if he does he will convert it immediately into US dollars.

“They say the price varies and that it’s a bit like the stock market,” the 37-year-old said. “Most people are afraid because of the lack of information.”

Twenty years after it adopted the US dollar as its national currency, El Salvador will on Tuesday become the first country in the world to make bitcoin legal tender.

In a plan spearheaded by the Central American nation’s populist president Nayib Bukele, citizens will be able to shop, pay taxes and buy land using the volatile cryptocurrency.

Proponents say it will cut the fees Salvadorans pay to send home remittances — which represent one-quarter of the country’s gross domestic product — promote financial inclusion for those without bank accounts and facilitate access to a potentially high-yielding asset.

Critics say the rushed plan could cost poorer Salvadorans when the price falls, raise costs for banks and insurers, provide a shield for money launderers and risk economic stability.

Rating agency Moody’s downgraded the country’s debt rating in part because of the law. The IMF — currently in talks with the government over a new loan — said adopting cryptocurrency as legal tender could destabilise prices and put the financial system at risk.

Stickers against bitcoin on an ice cream vendor’s cart in San Salvador
An ice cream vendor in San Salvador voices her opposition to bitcoin with a sticker on her cart © Marvin Recinos/AFP via Getty Images

With a week to go, polls show the majority of Salvadorans are against the idea, and on the streets of the capital, few said they were prepared to switch to using the digital currency.

Small, sporadic protests by groups from pensioners to unions took place through the week, and a digital specialist who had spoken out against the plan was detained by police without an arrest warrant.

“I don’t know anything about it and I don’t want to learn either, I’m one of those people who says: no way, I won’t use it,” said Guadalupe Escobar, 35, who sells bread at a roundabout in the capital San Salvador.

Out of employees and owners from more than 20 different enterprises surveyed by the Financial Times in San Salvador — from informal street food stands to coffee shops chains — three said they knew they would accept bitcoin. The rest had not started preparing or rejected the idea.

Bukele’s government is rolling out a digital bitcoin wallet called “Chivo” — slang for “cool” — in the coming days with $30 in bitcoin free for every user. Across the country, Chivo ATMs will allow consumers to buy bitcoin or convert it into cash with the government absorbing commission costs.

A motorcycle repair shop in Aguilares that accepts bitcoin as a payment method
This motorcycle repair shop in Aguilares accepts bitcoin as a payment method © Jose Cabezas/Reuters

The move has excited cryptocurrency advocates abroad. Juan Pablo Thieriot, chief executive of Uphold, a digital platform that enables payments and trading in cryptocurrencies, national currencies and precious metals, said El Salvador’s move made “a ton of sense”.

This was because the dollarised country needed better alternatives to dodge the negative effects of the US government’s giant stimulus package on the currency.

“You see something like a . . . six or eight trillion [dollar] debasement exercise where most of the benefit is going to US citizens . . . and you are not the beneficiary of that,” he told the FT. “You would logically look for something else.”

The country’s large retail businesses are preparing to accept bitcoin and expect a September bump in sales from the extra liquidity, said Leonor Selva, executive director of private sector association ANEP, but what will happen beyond that is unclear.

“The government is preparing more of a brand or product launch than public policy,” Selva said.

In response to questions, the government said it would publish more information in the coming days.

The inspiration for the bold move was a project called Bitcoin Beach in El Zonte, a laid-back surf town a 50-kilometre drive from the capital, where tourists and locals are already using the cryptocurrency.

In 2019, an anonymous US crypto “early adopter” began funding community work paid in bitcoin in the town and now a team of mostly young Salvadorans works to promote its use.

Idalia Mejia sells pupusas — a popular Salvadoran corn patty often filled with cheese or meat — in bitcoin in the town and thinks it is good for attracting clients, but tries not to hold on to it. “I have lost out when it’s gone down,” the 49-year-old said. “I prefer not to have it.”

In the past year, the price of bitcoin has soared from about $10,000 to more than $60,000 and it is currently worth a little under $50,000.

Jorge Valenzuela, one of the project leaders, estimates that about half the town’s residents use it. Some save it, he said, but for others it is convenient for transactions in a nation where 70 per cent lack access to financial services.

Across the country, anyone with access to technology will by law have to accept bitcoin from Tuesday, although the three pages of government regulations do not mention penalties for non-compliance.

Apart from the initial incentive, the Chivo wallet will allow immediate conversion into dollars, backed by a recently approved $150m fund. Some economists question whether that is big enough, and say that a fall in the price of bitcoin would put the government under broader fiscal pressure.

“If, for example, taxes are paid in cryptoassets, while expenditures remain primarily in dollars, there would be significant pressure on the exchange market, and on the level of international reserves,” Torino Capital said in a note.

El Salvador’s central bank did not respond to a request for comment.

Steve Hanke, an economics professor at Johns Hopkins University who has advised emerging market nations on currency issues, said bitcoin made it virtually impossible for banks to comply with “know your customer” rules, and that the country risked a red flag from the anti-money laundering Financial Action Task Force.

“It isn’t a currency, it’s a very speculative asset,” said Hanke, a longtime advocate of dollarisation. “There is a lot of risk associated with bitcoin and that risk will be borne by the taxpayers.”

Additional reporting by Michael Stott in London

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