Britain outsources its debt crisis solution

Can Britain co-opt solutions from the Canadas and Australias of the world by hiring away Canada's central bank governor?


It was perhaps only a matter of time before a European government began poaching central bank talent from the likes of Canada or Australia – the countries that got through the worst of the global financial crisis relatively unscathed.

Stuck for answers to the region's debt crisis and its own internal struggles, the British government announced overnight the hiring of Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney to take the reins at the Bank of England. It marks the first time a foreigner will head Britain's central bank in its 318-year history.

In Carney, Britain gets a highly-regarded policymaker who navigated Canada through the global recession without a housing crisis (at least so far) and without any of the major banks seeking a government bailout, due in large part to regulations that prevented much of the risk-taking seen in the United States.

Carney's departure from the Canadian scene is perfectly timed for his purposes. Carney's decision to keep Canada's interest rates at record lows – the benchmark rate has been at one per cent since September 2010 – helped ease pressure on the housing market and broader economy.

But that also prompted Canadians to continue taking on massive amounts of debt, with household debt now representing 163.4 per cent of disposable income, which is nearing household debt levels seen in the US at the height of the subprime mortgage crisis. Carney has called household debt levels "the biggest domestic risk” to Canada's economy.

The record-low interest rates also leave the central bank and Canada's government with little leverage to respond to now-softening housing prices and sales in major markets. Last month, Canada cut back its 2013 growth forecast to two per cent from 2.4 per cent and the federal government, citing falling commodity prices, postponed by a year its plans for a return to surplus, to 2016-17.

But Carney leaves Canada with an intact track record. His popularity had Canadian political parties lobbying him to run for public office and Time magazine named him one of the world's most influential people in 2010. He leaves to his successor the tough task of stimulating growth with no interest rate leverage.

The real question is what Carney will do now that he has hold of the reins on the struggling British economy.

His track record since becoming head of Canada's central bank in 2008 was a huge plus, but British Chancellor George Osborne had other reasons for calling Carney "the outstanding central banker of his generation with unparalleled expertise in financial regulation”. Prior to joining the Bank of Canada, Carney spent 13 years at Goldman Sachs in their offices in London, Tokyo, New York and Toronto, offering him a first-hand perspective on the global banking sector.

"Mr Carney is unique amongst the potential candidates in combining long experience of central banking, huge international credibility in economics, deep expertise in financial regulation and a first-hand expertise of private sector institutions,” Osborne said.

Thanks to an overhaul of Britain's financial regulation following the global financial crisis, Carney's Goldman Sachs experience will be put to good use by taking on additional responsibilities for banking supervision on top of leading a newly-created committee intended to spot and avoid future economic crises.

The British government's decision to not only reach outside the central bank, but outside the country too, also reflects a desire to step away from the ongoing investigation into the Libor interest rates manipulation scandal while putting the central bank in the hands of someone who is untainted by decisions that contributed to the financial crisis.

Carney offers a clean break from both the Libor scandal and the financial crisis, compared with the candidate widely-expected to be given the post, current BoE governor Mervyn King's deputy, Paul Tucker. Tucker has been with the central bank for nearly 20 years and faces questions over his role in the Libor scandal, while Carney's role as chairman of the Financial Stability Board has given him experience dealing with the fallout from the global financial crisis, and the European debt crisis in particular.

Osborne clearly hopes Carney will bring what he accomplished in Canada to Britain.

"Bank bailouts have been avoided, sustained growth has returned and it says something of Mark Carney's abilities and the regard he is held in that he was chosen by his fellow central bank governors and regulators around the world to be the chair of the Financial Stability Board – the body tasked with strengthening and co-ordinating global financial regulation,” Osborne said.

Carney's appointment will prove a crucial test of the extent to which Europe and the US can co-opt the successes of the likes of Canada and Australia in surviving global recessions. Carney's failure to lead a turnaround of the British economy would empower those who say commodity-driven economies have little by way of lessons to offer economies elsewhere.

But if Carney is able to play a part in leading Britain out of a stagnating economy during his five-year term, the likes of Canada and Australia will, perhaps belatedly, be seen in a fresh light.

The trouble is, falling commodity prices are beginning to show the extent to which the resources boom pulled Canada and Australia through the global recession, and may eventually show that political leaders and central bank officials – such as Canada's Carney – have been given too much of the credit.

In Britain, Carney faces a moment of truth. He won't have a resources boom to work with. Instead, he will find a deeply troubled economy heavily influenced by developments elsewhere in Europe.

Taken outside a commodity driven economy, the world will also see the extent to which Canadian, and Australian, solutions can be exported to some of the globe's most troubled leading economies.

For Carney, it means that despite the robust track record he developed in Canada, the true test has only just begun.

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