Opinion: Half an hour that changed the future

Yesterday, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) announced it would reduce or ‘taper’ its level of QE acquisitions from $85 billion a month to $75 billion. In the physical world it was not a touch on the break so much as a slight easing of pressure on the accelerator.

Back in September the FOMC had announced it thought the time for ‘tapering’ was at hand. Long term interest rates (a window on future expectation for growth and inflation) veered up and down as markets tried to gauge the warring claims of the liquidity, income and expectation effects. No clarity: US stock markets fell: the FOMC stepped back in sharply to reverse the tapering ‘message’.

Yesterday’s announcement saw a similar battle in the bond markets – this time over a 30 minute period. 10 year rates initially spiked, then plunged, then moved back to where they had been before the announcement: the income, liquidity and expectation effects cancelling each other out.

Professor Scott Sumner, who blogs at The Money Illusion, provided this chart of the scene of the battle:

Screen-Shot-2013-12-18-at-3.38.35-PM

This time the stock markets rose – the Dow up 300 points – their view: the economic future looked better, not worse.

What had made the difference between September and December? This time there was very clear communication (Forward Guidance) that the FOMC would act to loosen monetary policy if anything appeared to slow the emerging recovery in the US economy. Previous Forward Guidance on the limiting target level for unemployment was effectively eased. And more and more market participants are getting the hand of Market Monetarism at work.

In the UK, since the announcement of Mark Carney as Mervyn King’s replacement to lead the Bank of England, markets have accepted the necessary assurance that interest rates will remain low for the foreseeable future. The resulting positive expectations and confidence in the UK economy have underpinned investment, restocking, recruitment and marketing initiatives.

Once in post the new Governor institutionalised these expectations by announcing formal Forward Guidance: monetary policy would remain accommodative and tightening would not be considered until unemployment had fallen to 7% or unless inflation forecasts indicated that a 2.5% rate might be breached.

The 7% figure was arrived at after considerable debate within the Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee where hawks, those who were arguing for a rate rise back in 2011, continue to exert their contractionary influence. The 7% figure for the unemployment knockout might have been higher than Carney’s personal choice but defeat on the issue could not be risked. The hawks had their lever and they used it.

The good news in the UK yesterday was that unemployment fell once more. The bad news is that this will bring forward and strengthen the demands of hawks to reverse existing positive expectations of the Bank’s stance – putting the foot on the monetary brake. Where, in the US, forward guidance underpins positive expectations, in the UK, as presently configured, it could create the negative expectations just when recovery is gathering pace.

Carney has said that this period in UK economic history will show just how much slack there is in our economy. Our battle is just beginning and looks set to be fought out over the next six months rather than in 30 minutes! Truly, it is our 1937 monent.

The Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) has a pessimistic view of the amount of slack, but there are economic consultancies such as Oxford Consulting and Capital Consulting that suggest the output gap is significantly greater than that calculated by the OBR (which I argued here a year ago).

In political terms the question is, can Britain do more work, produce more things, deliver more services, create more capital (including social capital) and pay ourselves at a level that makes this sustainable?

If we believe the answer is yes – then we have to help Mark Carney set aside the artificial restriction of this arbitrary 7% knockout figure for unemployment. And economic consensus suggests that the natural rate of unemployment in the UK is 5.5%.

If we believe we can do more let’s start campaigning with all our energy and drive for a deeper, wider more sustained recovery that benefits the whole country and not just the lucky few.

Here’s a slogan to fight on: Yes, we can! “Si, se peude.

* Bill le Breton is a former Chair and President of ALDC and a member of the 1997 and 2001 General Election teams

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23 Comments

  • Paul In Twickenham 20th Dec '13 - 5:17pm

    So what has actually happened? The “taper” is reducing the monthly asset purchase limit by $10bn so that by the end of next year the Fed’s balance sheet will be a mere $4.9 trillion rather than the $5 trillion it would otherwise have been. Bernanke and Yellen have basically said “th.. th.. that’s all folks”. Support for loose money, ZIRP and tulipmania will continue until the badgers have stopped moving the goalposts. No wonder the markets went ballistic.

    But I have to question what any of this actually means. The CEO of Morrison’s was on telly this morning bemoaning the fact that his customers have less to spend than last year. Debt is real. Value is a matter of opinion. In a world of stagnating or falling income can we have sustainable growth driven by increasing indebtedness and draining savings? Because that is what is happening. Today in the USA the GDP growth estimate for last quarter was sharply increased and the increase was almost entirely due to increased spending on health care and gasoline.

    The only thing of which I am certain is that the assets that are typically owned by the rich will continue to increase in nominal value.

    I agree with Bill that we should not be afraid to spend, and that the spending should be targeted at sustainable growth. But – like some whacked out corollary to the paradox of thrift – I’m not sure that investing for sustainable growth is of great interest to most investment bankers.

  • The trouble is, if anyone is truthful about what the UK should be aiming for, they will admit that we are in for an awful lot of hard graft in starting to earn our place in the world rather than simply borrowing to support it.

    A lot of the stuff we should be doing more of, like investing in industry, research, infrastructure, training and high quality education (not the dumbed down variety) is the kind of tough, gritty stuff which takes years to pay off and is not an instant vote winner. In fact, it may lose votes because it means not adopting the quick fixes of Labour (kick companies in the short term) or the Tories (let the banks off the hook, build unnecessary airports, start a new credit boom and cut taxes for the rich to boost the housing market).

    What went wrong in the past was that we let our exchange rate appreciate too much, killing off our industrial base. When the pound was at €1.50 was when UK manufacturing was dying a death. This won short term popularity by making manufactured imports and foreign holidays cheaper, holding down prices, boosting real living standards in the short run, but in the long term it was a disaster.

    If we can get to 5.5% unemployment, that will be great. But it is where and how that employment is created that really matters to the long term health of our economy. If it is all driven by consumption and borrowing we will simply be repeating the mistakes of the past.

  • @Paul

    “The only thing of which I am certain is that the assets that are typically owned by the rich will continue to increase in nominal value.”

    Well, any assets that there is additional demand for, induced by the central bank, should increase in nominal value. It just happens to be that those assets (especially in the United States) are held disproportionately by people who are already wealthy.

    Though it’s not as current as would be ideal, this from the BoE late last year gives a good understanding of the distributional impact of low interest rates and QE between mid-2008 and Spring 2012. It’s worth considering this paragraph:

    “When considering these distributional impacts, however, it is important to remember that without the Bank’s asset purchases, most people in the United Kingdom would have been worse off. Economic growth would have been lower. Unemployment would have been higher. More companies would have gone out of business. That would have had a detrimental impact on savers and pensioners along with every other group in our society. All assessments of the effect of asset purchases must be seen in that light. ”

    http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Documents/news/2012/nr073.pdf

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Dec '13 - 6:23pm

    Monetary policy is a bit of a pet project of mine, considering I think it forms the basis of the next economic crisis.

    My thoughts on the article are that it could have been written simpler; I agree there is a lot of slack in the economy (which means we don’t need Conservative level cuts); but I disagree that we should hold off tightening the money supply.

    We need to be brave and be prepared to ask the middle class to pay higher interest rates on their mortgages for the good of the country.

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Dec '13 - 6:25pm

    We also need to stop being so nice to the banks when it comes to monetary policy. The Conservatives are currently advertising a commitment to keep mortgage rates low, which is basically a state subsidy to the banks and the middle class – it is not sustainable.

  • QE, has been like a ‘teat’, feeding imaginary money into the system, and keeping the world economy sustained since 2008. This $10 billion reduction is a start, but only when the breast milk of QE is removed in totality, will we know if the economy can walk all by itself.

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Dec '13 - 8:00pm

    Just stumbled across an article on monetary policy by the BBC and it makes the Bank of England look very desperate. They’ve tried low interest rates, printing money (sorry quantitative easing) and now Forward Guidance.

    Forward Guidance is basically the Bank of England saying to the public that interest rates will remain low for the foreseeable future, so get out and start spending, borrowing and investing. It’s a dishonest strategy, because it has so many get out clauses (including threats to financial stability) that the promise isn’t really worth the paper it’s written on.

    From a pragmatic view it may seem fine, but if you think harder about it anything that reduces the credibility of what the Bank of England says is bad for the economy because if at one point they really need to assure the public that everything is fine then nobody will listen and will might panic instead. Mark Carney broke one of these promises whilst at the Canadian Bank.

    The article on Forward Guidance, which includes QE is here:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-23145755

    It doesn’t look good, let’s just admit it instead of desperately trying to talk up confidence in the myth that lies can be self-fulfilling.

  • Little Jackie Paper 20th Dec '13 - 10:33pm

    Eddie Sammon – I think it is a bit more complicated. Indeed, it has often been something of a surprise to me that the Coalition has not talked about household deleveraging more – it has been a quiet but very real success. Try here (though I would add I don’t quite agree with everything in this) http://uneconomical.wordpress.com/2013/05/23/deleveraging-is-easy-deleveraging-is-good/.

    If indeed it is a subsidy to the middle class it seems not to have been used frivolously. Where I do agree with this link is that the big question really is household income in future, not interest rates as such. This is where I do worry more. A load of zero-hours or temporary jobs are welcome insofar as they go – it’s just that that isn’t very far. The losers have been the young who have been priced out of home (asset) ownership and have been hit with the devaluation of labour. Plus tuition fees and increased competition from transient EU labour, but let’s not open those cans of worms here. In this context it is interesting to wonder on the fiscal side why it is pensioners that have been the protected species. I am yet to hear any compelling reason why property wealth seems not to be a factor in policy, at least for the moment.

    It’s not, ‘jobs,’ that we need as such, rather it is wages and savings. The days of the mass-employing production lines are gone, and they are not coming back. Whilst it is right to talk about graft as someone else does, money matters. My parents bought me up to believe that hard work is its own reward – my parents were talking cobblers. Wages are the reward. I am increasingly starting to think that quality of employment is perhaps more important in real terms than some % of the labour force being unemployed. There are more radical options (the Swiss 12:1 initiative and Thomas Minder for example), but clearly in the UK we are nowhere near that.

    The role of monetary policy in the revaluation of labour is not clear to me. But it seems to me that the far more important question here is incomes specifically.

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Dec '13 - 11:20pm

    Jackie, thanks for the message. That blog is inspired by those who want NGDP targeting so I wouldn’t give any credibility to what it says. The problem with NGDP targeting, or nominal income targeting, is that they don’t care about inflation and that is not fair on people who have fixed incomes. Showing disregard for any demographic in society will create instability.

    I would say that you have a point about household incomes being a problem – the reason the Bank of England are worried about increasing interest rates is because they don’t think the economy is strong enough to sustain it. This is basically about the huge structural problems with the economy, mainly the lack of skills, and I would also say that the present fiscal policy is inefficient (tax and spending decisions). I’m not an expert, but I know a bit.

    I would also say that I don’t think you can increase wages over the long term by ramping up labour laws (the Swiss 12:1 thing) – this just creates a low risk low pay environment for workers. However, we do need stability and justice in the labour market so I’m not saying let’s go to fire at will.

    I think there is room for improvement in both fiscal and monetary policy. My message is to not get complacent about the dangers the economy is still in.

  • Bill le Breton 21st Dec '13 - 7:59am

    Good morning everyone. Thank you for reading this post and a special thanks to those who have commented.

    @ Eddie, where do you get the idea that those of us who have been advocating NGDP level targeting (in my case for quite a few years now) don’t care about inflation? We care about deflation and the forces of disinflation that are of global significance.

    At long last the Central Bank has delivered in the last quarter (recently revised) NGDP growth of close to 6% (the long term pre 2008 trend rate + 1% i.e. some levelling element) – and where’s the inflation, Eddie?

    The latest convert to NGDP targeting would seem to be Professor Nicholas Crafts, Centre Forum’s ‘go-to’ economic historian and until recently a ‘price leveller’. http://www.voxeu.org/article/escaping-liquidity-traps-lessons-uk-s-1930s-escape http://www.voxeu.org/article/eurozone-if-only-it-were-1930s

    It is interesting how the Market Monetarist revolution (and support for NGDP level targeting) stems from economic historians – especially those who have studied the Great Depression.

    @Paul is right to point to Morrison’s and the High Street. I took my son to M and S last Sunday to buy a suit. The assistant confessed that footfall and buying was down. You don’t often get that frankness from loyal staff. Today I returned to see the shop drenched in 30% off offers. There is a real danger that the private sector is dipping its toe in the water only to find it still too cold!

    The Government needs to stand ready to act as ‘Investor of Last Resort’ using housing construction. Showing such intent could be sufficient to reassure private investors. Post Christmas can be a very depressing time.

    @Little Jackie Paper, you raise this issue, too. Geoff Crocker who comments here may have something to say about this. Going all the way to a ‘surplus’ with the global economy beset with deflation – will make things even more difficult.

    Great to see you reading Britmouse at http://uneconomical.wordpress.com/ A hero of the MM revolution in the UK.

    I was hoping @ Paul, might have been able to give a comment on the reaction of the bond markets. Yes – as I wrote above – the FOMC announcement was only a touch on the tiller, but last time just a few words were enough to send the markets into panic.

    The conclusion I come to is that people (though not the BBC! @ Eddie) are beginning to understand the thinking behind the emerging innovative monetary policies: seen full-on in Japan, full-hearted in the US (which has more than off-set very substantial fiscal easing there), seen in the negative effects of the ‘tightness’ of the ECB policy on Euro-zone economies, and seen when the replacement of King with Carney has had such a dramatic effect on the UK economy – what a tragedy we didn’t sack him in 2010, head hunt Lars Svensson from Sweden and clear out the hawks from the MPC. What is being in Government for?

    @ Mike: at last, someone else willing to point to the positives of QE in the UK.

    Carney using just ‘words’, the right words, and credible words, (even while still in his former job) has raised NGDP growth in this country which has brought real growth after unnecessarily lengthy stagnation and a double dip recession.

    Now is not the time to ‘talk’ it all back down. Now is the time to recommit to continued monetary stimulus and, if there is not yet sufficient confidence in the private sector to invest, then, that monetary stimulus must be used to fund a significant housing programme.

    It is time for the Establishment to have faith in the British people to deliver – the Establishment has never loved the people, it shows in their pessimistic attitudes. So, to borrow from Gladstone, Trust the People – this should be the distinctive, independent and integrated campaign of Liberal Democrats in Government and throughout the land: yes we can.

  • @ Bill le Breton

    I see you’re still promoting the idea of NGDP targeting. Unless you can control the split of NGDP between prices and output (which you can’t) how can it possibly have any relevance to sorting out our economic problems?

    As for M&S having 30% discounts, that is all to do with real wages. Real wages are down because food and energy prices and housing costs – all the basics – are increasing in price. On top of this, our labour market, while booming in volume terms as demand rockets, is not seeing any wage inflation because supply is virtually unlimited at the going price. It’s a classic flat supply curve and will be so until unemployment, and in particular youth unemployment, starts going down in the rest of Europe. We could be waiting some time for that. Please do not confuse that situation with “lack of demand”. There *is no lack of demand*. So NGDP targeting isn’t going to fix any of that.

  • @ Bill le Breton

    BTW, If Nick Crafts thinks the open UK economy of the 2010s is remotely like the UK economy of the 1930s I think he is utterly wrong.

    All of this monetary jiggery-pokery isn’t going to hide the underlying problem of the UK economy and living standards. The problem we are facing is that instead of just competing with a few developed countries for the world’s scarce energy, food and raw materials, we are now competing with a whole host of other nations, led by the BRICs. In previous recessions, commodity prices fell, consumer spending power rose and recovery kicked off. This time, if you look at what has happened to commodity prices, in this recession, there was an initial sharp decline, followed by a lurch back upwards in 2011, since when they have stayed high.

    http://www.indexmundi.com/commodities/?commodity=commodity-price-index&months=360

    This alone is enough to explain why the UK economy and others in the developed world have struggled to bounce back. If you think about what the economy has had to face in terms of higher supermarket food prices, higher energy bills, transport costs etc. sucking tens of billions of pounds out of the economy, you will realise that all this talk of NGDP targeting is entirely missing the point. We have suffered a massive supply side shock. It is the supply side, not the demand side that has determined the length and severity of this crisis.

  • Bill le Breton 21st Dec '13 - 10:38am

    RC – I know you will be the last person on the planet to support NGDP level targeting, but every time I have to ask you – what’s the shape of your SRAS curve? We have had a now significant increase in AD without inflation because the SRAS is not as you imagine. Money is neutral BUT not in the short run.

    You and Eddie do need to read Friedman 1968 – the Role of Monetary Policy.

    Will you accept the latest figures from ONS: revised 3rd quarter (annualized) NGDP growth 5.7% deflator 2.3% Real NGDP Growth 3.1%. At this point in time I’m happy with 2.3 inflation if it gets us 3.1% real growth. Why aren’t you?

    Get your old text books out and draw some AD/AS possibilities. Could you possibly conceive an upward sloping AS curve? What would it give you for a shift in AD. Would the low paid and unemployed be happy? Would savers be happy? Would there be credit for being the only party explaining this, fighting for it and delivering it?

    Japan doing it. US doing it. We not quite doing it … we have also hung a very pessimistic employment knockout around its continuance – instead of going the whole hog and fusing the employment and inflation targets into an NGDP target.

    Have you read the two Crafts pieces I pointed to? The ’30s are vitally important to the understanding of how we got into this deflationary environment (for gold standard sub inflation target) and how to get out of it.

    I find it hard that someone with your working knowledge can’t follow this 😉

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Dec '13 - 12:30pm

    Bill, OK, so what level of inflation would be too high? A simple answer please.

    I’ll never be convinced that we should loosen monetary policy further, but at least I could understand your opinion.

  • The level of inflation that would be too high entirely depends on aggregate supply – it’s quite possible that a strict inflation target (of say, two per cent) is inappropriate for the economy, either because real growth is particularly strong or weak.

    Surely the price level should correspond to negative or positive supply shocks? It seems bizarre that there should have been a two per cent increase in the price level between say, Q1 2012 and Q1 2013 (when NGDP growth was about 2.4%) as well as between Q4 2002 and Q4 2003, (when NGDP growth was about 6.9%). The underlying strength of the economy is clearly not comparable – why should growth in the price level be, so long as we acknowledge that ?

    Lars Christensen here gives an excellent example of how a change in aggregate supply would be better responded to by NGDP level targeting, and how inflation targeting can be misplaced.

    http://marketmonetarist.com/2013/01/31/are-half-a-million-hardworking-poles-to-blame-for-the-uk-real-estate-bubble/

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Dec '13 - 5:17pm

    Mike Bird, those factors may be important, but the market monetarist group cannot miss out the number of people in the country on fixed incomes whose their approach would not help one iota and would in fact harm.

    I’m not going to keep repeating myself.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Dec '13 - 5:26pm

    Anyone who wants to waft in a load of inflation would get more respect if they actually said what they think we should do about the people it would harm, rather than pretending they don’t exist.

    These people include:

    1. Fixed income pensioners.
    2. Those on the benefits freeze.
    3. Those on the public sector pay freeze.
    4. Those who hold fixed sterling investments.
    5. Those who have to change their prices (menu and contract information).
    6. Those who get exploited by price increases with their bosses keeping the higher profits.
    7. Those who the new money doesn’t trickle down to for whatever reason.

  • I don’t think they are – there’s no suggestion that inflation under an NGDP level target would be any higher over the long term than it is now. It’s just acknowledging that there’s no particular reason it should be the same over every twelve month period, regardless of what’s happening in the rest of the economy.

    It’s quite possible that a UK fixed income would have done considerably better over the Great Moderation between the early 1990s and 2007 – and as in the quote I posted originally, acknowledging the macro effect of monetary policy is important, not just the distributional effect. People on fixed incomes do not benefit from groggy, depressed economies in which monetary policy is restrained.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Dec '13 - 6:50pm

    Bill, please stop posting incoherent economic arguments with links to blogs making money.

  • Not all the comments on Bill’s original piece have added a lot of light.
    If they have added heat then I guess argument on economics is a safer form of generation than Hinkley C.

    Bill concludes with, –
    ” … let’s start campaigning with all our energy and drive for a deeper, wider more sustained recovery that benefits the whole country and not just the lucky few. ”

    This call to action for Liberal Democrats is consistent with the party’s philosophical approach and is more attractive than some of the implicit conclusions that might be drawn from those attacking his position.

  • Eddie Sammon 22nd Dec '13 - 12:32pm

    Mike, thanks for addressing my concern over UK fixed income. Although I understand in theory abandoning the inflation target wouldn’t necessarily mean higher than 2% per annum inflation over the long-run, I think in practice it would do.

    The best justification I have seen for creative ways to loosen monetary policy is from the Bank of England themselves, when they talk about increasing perceptions that the economy is doing well and therefore building confidence.

    This might have worked at first, but I think if the BOE keep doing it them the feeling goes from one of confidence to a sense of concern that they are just re-inflating the bubble and pushing people beneath the breadline with higher prices.

    People have spoken in the past about temporarily loosening the money supply, but you only need to be below the breadline once for it to have a major effect on your life and I don’t see enough justification in effectively debasing the pound to do this to people.

  • Paul in Twickenham 22nd Dec '13 - 3:25pm

    @Mike Bird – if I may quote from a recent article in the FT : “QE is a policy designed by the rich for the rich,” says Nigel Wilson, chief executive of Legal & General, during a recent panel discussion hosted by think-tank Resolution Foundation. I agree with Nigel. The BoE itself determined that the wealthiest 5% of UK households owned 40% of the assets boosted by QE. The quote you provide from the BoE is an assertion. There is no way of objectively verifying it and it begs the question “yes, we needed to stabilize the markets after their own greed virtually destroyed them, but was giving them access to unlimited cheap money the best we could come up with?”.

    @John Tilley – I completely agree (and have repeatedly argued on this site over a long period) that the BoE needs to expand its remit for QE. There is a wide range of asset classes that can be purchased within the remit and yet the BoE has focussed almost exclusively on the purchase of medium and long-dated gilts.

    And yet we have a major problem in this country – a lack of affordable housing. This is so serious that we now have Andrew Bailey saying that PRA is prepared to step in if it thinks the market is overheating.

    Well here’s an idea, Andrew: how about you and your mates buy some bonds from social housing companies? Social housing bonds (typically rated at AA) are currently trading at a spread of about 1% above gilts. Would you like to hazard a guess as to how many homes might be built if those rates could be dropped down to the sort of levels that money is costing the banks?

    In answer to Bill’s question about the effect of tapering on the bond market, clearly you need to consider the knock-on effects of increasing yield on USGs, particularly if spreads tighten versus bunds. The consequences would probably be most felt on the Eurozone periphery as the IMF predicted a few months back.

  • Bill le Breton 23rd Dec '13 - 8:56am

    Thanks Paul and thanks especially to Mike.

    There is no doubt in my mind that easing could have been achieved in a number of better ways. But easing was necessary and has been beneficial. We had to increase the base. If we don’t achieve escape velocity this time because the CB tightens too early, we shall need it again. This cycle happened a number of times during Japan’s lost decades.

    Pre Maastrict and back in the good old 1970s we would have just run an unfunded deficit to create the necessary base money. i.e. we could have built homes with cheques to builders drawn on the Gov’s account at the Bank of England, for instance.

    But this is a process that Central Bankers fought long and hard to ban and were not going to welcome back.

    That was the job of Liberal Democrats to campaign for. Instead we out hawked the hawks on the MPC who responded by out hawking the hawks in the Treasury who then outhawked the hawks in the Coalition 😉

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